- The Washington Times - Monday, May 30, 2011

Put the commissioners of America’s professional football, baseball, basketball and hockey leagues together in a room and they still couldn’t match the unchecked power, the global clout, the ability to enrage or elate entire continents with a nod of the head, that Sepp Blatter enjoys.

Sepp who?

Blatter is the president of FIFA, soccer’s governing body and arguably the most powerful man in the world of sport. He sits at the top of an organizational pyramid that encompasses hundreds of professional soccer leagues, thousands of pro teams and millions of players. The crown jewel in Blatters Zurich-based empire is the World Cup, the most watched single-sport event in the world.

But Blatter’s control of the empire he has ruled since 1998 is suddenly in question as FIFA delegates prepare to vote Wednesday on whether to keep the imperious president on the job, in an election already tarnished by vote-buying charges. The campaign for control of the “beautiful game” has been anything but pretty.

The 75-year-old Swiss native is the sole candidate in the election, after Asia’s soccer president Mohamed bin Hammam of Qatar pulled out of the race Sunday just hours before a FIFA ethics committee in Zurich suspended him on charges of bribery.

The scandal spread Monday after evidence surfaced that FIFA’s second in command had suggested Qatar had “bought” the right to host the World Cup in 2022.

The desert nation, with a population of just 1.7 million and no high-level soccer tradition, was shockingly awarded the 2022 World Cup in December after beating out the U.S. in a final round of voting 14-8. Bin Hammam was a key player in helping to deliver the 2022 World Cup to his homeland.

FIFA’s secretary general, Jerome Valcke, had hinted in a private email to FIFA vice president Jack Warner that Qatar had “bought” the right to host the World Cup. Warner made the email public after he also was provisionally suspended by FIFA’s ethics committee Sunday.

In a statement, Valcke said he used the word “bought” to mean Qatar was using the “financial strength” of an oil-rich country to lobby for the finals and that it was not intended to suggest any unethical behavior.

Last week, FIFA began investigating bin Hammam and Warner over accusations of bribery in the campaign to unseat Blatter. American soccer official Chuck Blazer blew the whistle, accusing bin Hammam of trying to bribe 25 delegates of the Caribbean Football Union with cash payments of $40,000 each.

Bin Hamman fired back, saying Blatter should also be investigated because he was informed of, but did “not oppose payments.”

On Sunday, FIFA’s ethics panel cleared Blatter of any ethics violations, leaving him unopposed in the election.

“Football is not in a crisis, only some difficulties,” Blatter said at a press conference Monday, even as some FIFA members suggested Wednesday’s election should be suspended.

The investigations come at time when already six members of FIFA’s elite 24-man executive committee - including two vice presidents - are accused of having received, or demanded, bribes during the bidding for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, which went to Russia and Qatar respectively, over favorites England and the U.S.

It could be a watershed moment for FIFA. The organization is facing the kind of scrutiny that brought changes to the International Olympic Committee following the Salt Lake Winter Olympic Games bribery scandal.

“I think the time is coming where those that are governed [FIFA’s 208 soccer member nations] will be quite a bit more demanding of transparency,” said D.C. United president and CEO Kevin Payne. “The manner in which the election for the World Cup site was chosen is just not good. It’s very difficult for Americans to understand something - a process - being so opaque as that process is. Something has to be changed.”

Blatter has not ruled out the possibility of reopening the 2022 vote if corruption is proved.

According to evidence uncovered by London’s Sunday Times and presented to Britain’s Parliament, two members of FIFA’s executive committee were paid $1.5 million to vote for Qatar.

“The decision to take the World Cup to Qatar is ludicrous on the face of it, where the attendees will outnumber Qatar’s entire population,” said Payne.

Blatter says the “survival of FIFA is at stake” and that without him at the helm the organization will suffer “irreversible damage,” and “disappear into a black hole.”

If Blatter is re-elected, he will be heading an organization under intense scrutiny facing demands for reform. He also will preside over a guaranteed budget of over $6 billion, which includes funds in reserve and commercial contracts already sold for the next three World Cups.

“Blatter is like the head of the United Nations, except Blatter has power, and can influence people the way he wants,” said Keir Radnedge, the former editor of World Soccer Magazine and now editor of Sports Features Communications. “He’s a sort of benevolent dictator. He is like the president of the United States. He has executive power and head of state status.”

Blatter says the way the World Cup host is chosen must change. He wants to expand the vote from the 24-man executive committee to all of FIFA’s 208 member-nations, similar to how the International Olympic Committee chooses Olympic venues.

“Blatter is a very complex man,” Radnedge said. “He is very personable. He is a great football fan. He loves football. Basically he’s a skilled politician whose talent is wasted on football.”

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