- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 2, 2015

ZURICH — Soon, soccer won’t have FIFA President Sepp Blatter to kick around any more.

At the age of 79, Blatter, longtime leader of the scandal-scarred governing body of the world’s most popular sport, announced on Tuesday he is leaving football’s governing body.

Under Blatter’s presidential rule since 1998, FIFA survived — even thrived — through financial crisis and a slew of allegations of bribery, vote-buying and World Cup ticket scams.

Blatter came to embody FIFA and its reputation that was tarnished just as equally as its prize asset, the World Cup, was celebrated as a commercial and popular success.

Yet he was mostly untouched by claims of corruption which unseated or tainted many of his colleagues on the often-discredited FIFA executive committee.

“People like a scapegoat of course, but how could things have become so twisted?” Blatter asked an audience of students in England in 2013, deploying his undeniable charisma and vanity to try to win over a touch audience.

“As you can see, I’m not some overbearing bully who can intimidate my critics with one look and strong-arm governments to my will.”

Blatter devoted more than half his life to working at FIFA, as technical director, chief executive and, since 1998, as elected president.

He mastered the politics of international soccer and reveled in the access and media attention it gave him. He mixed easily with heads of state lured by the commercial and popular power of the World Cup.

Blatter’s fiercest critics could never prove that he was himself corrupt.

Blatter learned a lot from his predecessor, Joao Havelange. The imperious Brazilian presided over FIFA for 24 years — the last 17 with Blatter as chief administrator — in which sports marketing was shaped as a booming industry, and could be bent to the will of federation leaders.

Blatter’s rise to become a global player in sports politics was unlikely.

He was born in the Alpine town of Visp to modest family roots. His father’s parents had met when both worked at a hotel for a winter season in the ritzy French Riviera resort of Nice.

As FIFA President, Blatter relished telling the story that his birth was two months premature, and one of his grandmothers said she thought he would not survive.

“It’s because I am a fighter,” Blatter would add in a typical touch of light self-aggrandizement.

He was not the only Joseph Blatter in his home Valais region. A lawyer in the hub city of Sion had a prior call on the name, so Blatter adopted Sepp as a short form. He later added the initial to become the more formal Joseph S. Blatter.

“The ‘S’ is just for the gallery,” Blatter once said.

Blatter saw the value of reinventing himself, including as a lifelong soccer enthusiast.

Yet his career, begun as a press officer for the Valais tourism board, took him to other sports. In ice hockey, he was general secretary of Switzerland’s governing body. In track and field, he was a spokesman for the Swiss federation and later oversaw event timing for luxury watch brand Longines.

Soccer then appeared to find Blatter with an assist by Horst Dassler, founder of Adidas which joined FIFA as a sponsor for the 1970 World Cup.

In 1975, Blatter was employed by FIFA to run development programs funded by Coca-Cola. His first duty was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia — another favorite Blatter anecdote to reinforce his reputation as a true friend of Africa.

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