Sympathy for the ‘devil’: In defense of Sepp Blatter

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Getty Images

There can’t be many people whose image has sat side by side on a front page with Colonel Gaddafi, the now expired former dictator of Libya. But Sepp Blatter, the president of soccer’s governing body FIFA, is one of the few to hold this dubious honor.

It was June 2011, and The Sun — a British tabloid newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch and known for its cheeky, salacious front pages — ran one of its most memorable headlines.

“Despot the Difference,” it screamed above a picture of Blatter and Gaddafi. “Two deluded dictators continued to cling on to power yesterday as their corrupt regimes crumbled around them.”

Just over 18 months on and Blatter has fared slightly better than Gaddafi. But only just. This weekend he was vilified again for refusing to back the principle of AC Milan walking off the pitch when one of the Italian club’s black players was racially abused by fans.

It was seized as another example of Blatter’s buffoonery and came after comments he made in a 2011 interview with CNN when he seemed to suggest there was no problem with racism in soccer, at least on the pitch.

But is this foolishness, myopia or inelegance? I would say the latter of the three. His comments on the AC Milan incident were broadly correct. Whilst Kevin Prince Boateng should be applauded for his “Rosa Parks” moment, enshrining it in law would be highly problematic.

Sure, FIFA is not without its problems, but the sound bites tend to obscure a much wider, more important truth: Blatter’s largely positive influence on the game, especially in the developing world.

Whilst he is parodied as an out of touch buffoon haphazardly directing affairs from FIFA’s “Death Star” in Zurich, he has arguably done more in the modern era to spread the game globally than anyone else.

This year I interviewed Blatter twice. On both occasions he talked about soccer being more than just a game. That it was also an agent of social change. His first act when elected president in 1998 was to fly into the Gaza Strip and welcome Palestine to the soccer family.

FIFA became one of a tiny handful of international organizations to recognize the existence of Palestine, a full four years before a U.N. vote almost, but not quite, got to the same point.

The Palestinians have cleverly used soccer as a way of both flying their flag and as a dry run for building and maintaining important civic institutions. Blatter should take credit for kickstarting that movement.

The wider point here is that Blatter’s tenure as FIFA president has been internationalist in tooth and claw. Under his watch the World Cup was hosted in Asia for the first time in 2002. It is a region that, in 50 years’ time, will undoubtedly be the new power center of the world game.

Blatter championed Africa’s first ever World Cup, in South Africa in 2010, a remarkable vote of confidence in a country barely two decades out of apartheid.

And, most controversially, Russia and then the Middle East will host their first World Cups in 2018 and 2022 respectively. No one should have been surprised by either move. Both regions are booming and have a deep love of the game. FIFA under Blatter has been aggressively expansionist and hosting a World Cup in England or even the U.S. would have added little new.

Now there are a new set of pressing challenges. The rise in racism needs to be tackled with financial penalties so stiff that clubs would have no choice but to take the issue seriously.

Greater transparency within FIFA’s decision making and finances need to be addressed. The corruption watchdog Transparency International cut its ties with FIFA in 2011 when two of its recommendations — that the investigator charged with overseeing FIFA would be compromised if he was paid by FIFA and that he should be allowed to investigate old corruption scandals — were dropped.

The stain of corruption emanating from countries with poor records in transparency and openness is another issue. Why not publish the salaries and expenses of FIFA’s leading members to combat that?

Read James Montague’s entire article here on CNN.

Do you agree with James? Does Blatter deserve to be seen in a better light? Share your opinions with us on Twitter and Facebook.

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