- Associated Press - Saturday, May 23, 2015

GENEVA (AP) - Sepp Blatter divides opinion so much even his opponents are charmed by him.

Two sides of the FIFA president’s reputation were summed up by a former rival in the re-election campaign he seems sure to win next week.

“I like you very much,” Michael van Praag told Blatter when European soccer leaders verbally ambushed the sport’s most powerful man in Brazil last June.

Then, in the same hostile meeting, the Dutch soccer federation president made his point.

“People tend not to take you very seriously anymore,” Van Praag said, adding that FIFA under Blatter had come to mean “corruption and bribery and all kinds of old boys’ networks.”

Blatter polarizes soccer fans and officials around the world. He is routinely booed in public, including when presenting the World Cup trophy in Rio de Janeiro last July and at the Asian Cup final in Sydney in January. But he is also reverentially praised by the FIFA family of voters.

He was compared to Moses, Jesus, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela by the Dominican Republic’s soccer president at a CONCACAF regional meeting last month.

Being feted by heads of state and grateful soccer leaders is part of Blatter’s job, and one reason why at the age of 79 there is no end in sight to his FIFA reign - with or without the support from Europe.

“That was the most disrespectful thing I have experienced in my entire life, on the football pitch and in my home,” Blatter said the day after the attack in Sao Paulo.

Speaking sharply then in his German mother tongue, the multilingual Blatter showed rare and raw passion to his media inquisitors.

Blatter has played the FIFA game masterfully for almost 40 years. His only rival next Friday, Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan, was not born when Blatter joined FIFA in 1975 to run development work worldwide.

Brought in by Adidas for projects funded by Coca-Cola, Blatter began working closely with the World Cup sponsors who are still FIFA’s more important. Both are signed up through the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and never publicly criticize FIFA.

Blatter often recalls his first FIFA duty in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. It reminds him that he did not join FIFA to serve the European elite.

Indeed, the 53 UEFA votes now account for barely one-quarter in globalized, 209-member FIFA elections. European support has not been decisive in a presidential election since 1961 and Blatter has not sought it.

Blatter’s predecessor, Joao Havelange of Brazil, came to power in 1974 promising more World Cup places and FIFA money for less developed regions. In this election, the challengers made new versions of those old promises.

However, voter loyalty now runs too deep to shift from Blatter, who maintained the Havelange way at FIFA if not his predecessor’s taste for million-dollar kickbacks. Blatter’s personal vices are perhaps fine tailoring and a certain vanity that can lead to FIFA funding a $27 million movie about itself with a Hollywood star, Tim Roth, playing the current president.

For the past 41 years, FIFA has created more tournaments, matches and meetings in a system ripe for patronage.

All these require more host nations and congress venues such as the Bahamas and Mauritius. Delegates are needed to fulfil duties at 800 World Cup qualifying matches and fill committee seats. All need to be flown in, given hotel rooms and paid daily expenses from FIFA accounts.

It is paid for by booming broadcasting rights and sponsorships deals that earned FIFA almost $5 billion from the 2014 World Cup alone.

Voters fear supporting a Blatter opponent could see FIFA cut their duties, Van Praag said Thursday.

“That’s the power. It’s very hard to break through,” Van Praag said in Amsterdam after withdrawing his candidacy.

Blatter’s mix of ruthlessness and undeniable charisma was admired, albeit in private conversations, by reform experts brought in to advise FIFA since the 2018-2022 World Cup hosting votes.

The ruthless streak showed in Blatter cutting ties with former allies whose alleged wrongdoing was once tolerated. They had turned on him or became too deeply mired in corruption scandals.

By distancing himself from several big FIFA players who left in disgrace since the 2011 election, Blatter has even presented himself as a victim of his organization’s battered reputation.

“People like a scapegoat, of course, but how could things have become so twisted?” Blatter asked an audience of Oxford University students in 2013.

In that same speech, Blatter dismissed the image of him as a James Bond movie villain in FIFA’s opulent 240 million Swiss franc ($250 million) headquarters on a Zurich hillside. He drew laughs when misguidedly showing his playful side, doing a strutting walk to mimic Cristiano Ronaldo. The Real Madrid superstar threatened to boycott the next FIFA awards ceremony.

This master of soccer’s universe came from humble Swiss roots, and via working in tourism, ice hockey and athletics.

In his family’s ancestral village of Ulrichen, Blatter once told The Associated Press of his grandparents meeting while employed as winter season hotel workers on the French Riviera.

He was not even the best known Joseph Blatter in the Valais region - that was a lawyer in nearby Sion, he said. So he was Sepp and became the more formal Joseph S. Blatter.

“The ‘S’ is for the gallery,” he told the AP, smiling as though to mock himself.

In Ulrichen, residents meet greats like Franz Beckenbauer each year at Blatter’s annual charity soccer tournament. The people’s acclaim for their local boy made good can seem like the main prize to the untouchable FIFA president.

Even if some people don’t like him.

“If I would not be criticized,” Blatter said last year, “I would have no value.”

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