If Sepp Blatter could take a step back and look at the bigger picture, forgetting for a moment that today’s eight-year ban from all soccer activities likely means his long career as the world’s favorite sport’s most powerful figure has ended in disgrace and infamy, he might actually be proud of what happened.
FIFA’s ethics committee, a pet project of Blatter’s own devising, was created in 2012 to deal with controversies exactly like the one in which he’s found himself embroiled. Of course, the committee’s true goal was never to sniff out corruption wherever it lived, not in an organization whose foundational pillars have long been bribery, secret handshake deals, and a willful lack of oversight. No, the ethics committee’s real duty has always been to wipe FIFA’s hands clean when the biggest crooks in its employ finally became too toxic to last. That the system realized and determined that Blatter’s own position had reached that untenable level should be evidence to him that the game as he designed it still works as planned.
It’s instructive to remember how the ethics committee as it currently exists came to be in the first place. The impetus was the scandal arising from former CONCACAF exec Chuck Blazer’s bribery accusations against Jack Warner and Mohamed bin Hammam, the then-presidents of CONCACAF and the Asian Football Confederation, respectively. The sanitized version of events depicted Blazer as an upstanding American soccer exec who somehow just discovered the unethical dealings between longtime partner Warner and bin Hammam—the latter was challenging Blatter for FIFA’s presidency, and had allegedly paid off the former in exchange for votes. (It’s poetic that Blatter was taken down over allegations that he paid off Michel Platini in exchange for votes in that same presidential election.)
After everything we’ve since found out about in the FBI’s investigation of Blazer, which itself was the string that U.S. authorities continued tugging on until the whole thing unraveled in the form of the criminal charges this past year, Blazer’s prior knowledge of and direct involvement in that kind of corruption made it clear that his motivations were wholly less pure than they seemed.
The Warner-bin Hammam scandal, coupled with separate(?) allegations of bribery in relation to Qatar’s successful 2022 World Cup bid (bin Hammam was the one who orchestrated his home nation’s bid), added up to the highest profile revelations FIFA had faced to that point. Whereas Blatter and FIFA would normally do away with the offending parties with some vague hand-waving at the code of ethics and a suspension, there was too much outrage from the public, the media, and certain powerful members of FIFA, especially those from the West. Blatter had to make some gesture towards real reform of the system, and it had to at least appear convincing.
And so Blatter commissioned an Independent Governance Committee to look at FIFA’s existing structure and propose reforms. From that committee came a series of recommendations, part of which included stiffening the group’s code of ethics (for instance, by including new language prohibiting conflicts of interests and gift-giving, the very clauses under which Blatter and Platini were banned today) and creating an independent ethics committee with real power. FIFA implemented some of those recommendations and the new, bicameral committee (one investigatory arm and one judiciary one) banned both Warner and bin Hammam for life.
That history is important to today’s ruling because it shows how, from the beginning, the ethics committee was formed as a last-resort PR solution. When a FIFA member got into a situation that was so bad as to provoke ire among a large and powerful section of the world, the ethics committee could step in, get rid of that person, and then point to itself as proof that FIFA was serious about policing its own corruption. That the committee’s true independence is often up for debate—the head of the committee’s investigatory chamber, Michael J. Garcia, resigned after his report on the allegations of corruption in the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding process was only released publicly in a heavily redacted and whitewashed summary—is evidence that FIFA is only ever going to do what’s best for FIFA.
It shouldn’t really come as a surprise, then, when the ethics committee cast out Blatter and Platini today. Blatter is facing all sorts of scrutiny for possible criminal behavior at home and abroad, and Platini’s ties to his former mentor have dragged him down as well. If the remaining FIFA powerbrokers had any hope of continuing on, they had to get rid of those two. Blatter can kvetch all he wants about the committee’s lack of power to strip him of his title, but when the machine he created spits out his name, even he isn’t too big to stop it.
Today, FIFA officially lost its head. Luckily for the organization, the body was built for this very contingency, as the small nations with outsized power can continue exerting their influence while the bigger ones go along to get along, all the while those at the very top plug their ears and close their eyes to the shady business all around them until it threatens their own incomes. FIFA may be on the verge of fundamental change, owing to the U.S. and Swiss governments’ decision to involve the legal system. But if so, it won’t be because the ethics committee did anything other than exactly what Sepp Blatter designed it to.
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