Toward the end of Sepp Blatter’s victory speech, delivered after riding out the biggest scandal of his career by having his emperorship validated in resounding fashion, the FIFA president looked into the camera and said “I like you.”
If the first few minutes of his address hadn’t won you over with his effortless charm, his understated exuberance, his amusing though seemingly nonsensical metaphors, and his calculated, controlled manner before a room that largely loves him and a television audience that overwhelmingly despises him, then those three words should’ve given you at least a hint as to how he’s gotten so far.
In Blatter’s five-minute speech, he exhibited all the qualities that have gotten him to where he is today. He began by graciously thanking his opponent Prince Ali bin Hussein, showing a keen eye for political maneuvering. Rather than the morality play many of the Western viewers believed themselves to be watching, Blatter painted the election in sporting terms. Bin Hussein was a “competitor” who had “obtained a good result.” Blatter had come out on top, but at the end of the day, it was all just a game. You’d think he were a Chelsea player complementing a West Ham team that had managed to hold onto a 0-0 draw at home rather than the culmination of one of the most contentious campaigns in the biggest international sport.
Ah, but we were watching a celebration! Blatter changed gears in just a couple words and lifted everyone to the clouds alongside him. He thanked those in attendance for “accept[ing] me, that for the next four years I will be in command of this boat called FIFA.” And where will he steer this boat, no-doubt taking in all kinds of water from the iceberg that is the FBI’s investigation? Back to the beach! The luxurious FIFA cruise liner—probably designed, like some other future structures brought to you by and for FIFA, by the top engineers chasing their most wondrous whims—is ready to get back on the sea, bringing a spectacular version of “beach soccer” that “we can play everywhere.”
FIFA-as-boat may not make too much sense until you think about it and realize what he’s sub-communicating. Under his stewardship, Blatter is saying, the good ship FIFA will continue sailing its attractions to ports far and wide, eschewing the well-visited docks of the West and instead voyaging to places like South Africa, Russia, Qatar. It’s simultaneously a fanciful image and a promise that the route has not changed.
But he can’t totally ignore the present limitations of his empire. It is trembling, and without a concerted effort to steady things, there’s a chance it could topple. For that, for everything, Blatter has an answer. What FIFA currently suffers from in his eyes is a lack of organization rather than possessing inherent and deeply-rooted flaws. And how do you fix the organization? By empowering the smallest confederations and nations, naturally.
Blatter’s plan to expand the executive committee is the most direct evidence of the continuation of his long-standing power strategy. FIFA is in its predicament because of the outsized influence of its smallest members. Every member nation in the organization gets the same number of votes (one) and the same split of the profits, and thus pretty much has the same power of any other. So the Cook Islands—with a population of 13,700, the smallest state in the tiny “Ocean 11” Oceania confederation Blatter explicitly recommended for increased representation in the powerful executive committee—has just as much say in whether or not Blatter should be elected president for the fifth time as Germany.
Blatter has made it a point to reward these small nations in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and so on in terms of over- and under-the-table perks knowing how indebted to him they will be and thus how sure he can be that come hell or high water, he can count on their backing. That more than anything is why nearly all the coverage of this scandal in the media of the first-world has been overwhelming negative and yet no one doubted for a second that Blatter would easily win today’s election in a 5-1 drubbing, to extend his soccer analogy.
Regardless of the political machinations the speech made explicit, the most telling takeaway of how this man has been able to maintain his boa-constrictor squeeze on the presidency is his aura. A man can have all the money and all connections and the soundest plan for consolidating and maintaining power that there is; if he does not have charm—if he is not able to look a room of people in the eye and convince them that Yes, you are about to accept a bribe and sure, it’s probably illegal and immoral, and true, these clandestine meetings and shady handshake deals aren’t precisely fair or just, but if you trust me, I can guarantee you we will succeed—he’d never be able to achieve what Blatter has.
Towards the end of his speech, Blatter gets charged up while talking about his responsibility to FIFA. He scrunches up his face and begins to speak with a newfound fervency. FIFA needs to get back, and he’s convinced he’s the one to do it, and together he—we—will succeed. He’s so sure of this because while everyone else was sitting in the congressional room awaiting the results of the vote, he was off somewhere alone, meditating in solitude and had an epiphany: “God, Allah, or whoever is this extraordinary—whatever it is, this spirit in the world that we believe—they will help us to bring back this FIFA to where we shall be.”
One of the more revelatory Blatter anecdotes floating around over the years has been his Blatter’s belief that one day, he will win a Nobel Peace Prize. You couldn’t help but hear that and chuckle to yourself. How could this guy, whom everyone knows to be a fraud of the highest order at the head of maybe the single most blatantly corrupt international organization, really think that he’d win some kind of humanitarian award for his work? This speech went a long way towards answering that question. From afar and without any direct contact, a monster is easy to recognize. But up close, actually looking into that face (it is kinda cherubic if you’re being honest, and those cheeks and the little Cheshire cat smile are just so pinch-able, aren’t they?) and conversing with him (and what command of the language he has! that cute little accent, too!) from day to day, maybe it’s not so easy to see.
Maybe a monster that inspires you and enriches you and knows how to drop a well-timed joke and that tells you he likes you is easy to believe. Maybe you start to see things from his point of view and think, Yeah, why can’t we overlook the small stuff and acknowledge all the good this guy keeps reminding me he’s done? After all, the powerful don’t differ from the rest of us in their own desire for power; it’s in their ability to make us believe they deserve it, too.