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Re-elected FIFA president Blatter faces corruption fallout

May 29, 2015 at 6:40 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: A week that saw global soccer’s top officials arrested on major corruption charges today saw its highest official reelected to run FIFA. Joseph “Sepp” Blatter won a fifth term in office as head of the governing body that runs the World Cup and international soccer, this following what happened Wednesday.

As FIFA met in Zurich, U.S. authorities brought indictments alleging massive corruption within the organization. The only challenger today, Jordan’s Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, conceded defeat after a first ballot left Blatter just short of the needed tally for victory.

The 79-year old embattled FIFA chief spoke shortly after his reelection:

JOSEPH “SEPP” BLATTER, President, FIFA: I take the responsibility to bring back FIFA. With you, we do it, we do it, we do it. And I’m convinced we can do it.

I am faithful man. And I said now God, Allah, or whoever is this extraordinary, whatever it is, spirit in the world that we believe, we believe, they will help us to bring back this FIFA where we shall be. And I tell you and I promise you, in end of my term, I will give this FIFA to my successor in a very, very strong, strong position, a robust FIFA and a good FIFA. We have to work together.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Sepp Blatter’s reelection to head international soccer may seem counterintuitive, given what’s transpired in the past 72 hours. But many countries did support him, and with billions of dollars at stake, geopolitics remain a part of this.

For some further answers and perspective, we turn to Roger Bennett, a soccer analyst and co-host of a show and podcast called “Men in Blazers” on NBC Sports. And Franklin Foer, author of “How Soccer Explains the World.”

And we thank you both for being with us.

Roger Bennett, let me start with you.

How did Sepp Blatter pull off this win today?

ROGER BENNETT, Soccer Analyst: Because there’s no democracy in FIFA.

It takes place in FIFA land, where all he needs is to have a machine like the Chicago politics. It’s Boss Tweed. It’s Scaramanga. It’s Mayor Boss Daley. And every single nation — there is 209, even more than the United Nations — has a single vote. And he did it by pulling together Africa, Central America and also tiny islands that he saluted afterwards, the Cook Islands, the Solomon Islands.

He made them all stand up. He said, Oceania, you’re my Ocean’s 11, which is very brazen behavior for a man who on Wednesday it was announced his organization is being investigated by the FBI, the Department of Justice and the IRS. But it’s a medieval fiefdom that he’s running. It’s no democracy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Frank Foer, he did get these votes. There was a vote that took place and he won most of the countries that were casting ballots.

FRANKLIN FOER, Author, “How Soccer Explains the World”: The Mayor Daley of Chicago analogy is really apt, because he’s run a patriotism system.

He has all sorts of walking money that he has distributed all over the world to these very, very small countries, but it’s a little bit more than that. I mean, he’s also exploited geopolitical divisions, as you said in the introduction, that there is the sense that the global game of soccer was ruled by Europeans.

And he gave the first World Cup to Africa, and he gave one to Asia, and so all these — the politics of colonialism have been superimposed on this. Now, it’s a vile exploitation of that rhetoric, but a very effective one.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it still is — to come back to this, Roger Bennett, it is still a system where votes were cast. People didn’t have their arms twisted to vote this way, did they?

ROGER BENNETT: Absolutely in no way.

FIFA is run — in the words of the FBI, in the words of the attorney general on Wednesday, they said it turns a World Cup of fraud. They said it’s based on corruption, there’s racketeering. They found wire fraud, so all of the major decisions that geopolitically occur in terms of where these World Cups should happen, who the sponsors should be, they involve — and some of these have been photographed — they literally involve bags of cash.

So when we say these individuals, this is not democratic vote by any stretch of the imagination. It makes it very hard to dislodge. People have tried to dislodge him in the past. He has emerged stronger, as he did today. He slayed his opposition who stood up to him. But he has never met opponents like the FBI, like the Department of Justice and like the IRS. And they are going to be now a mighty foe that he’s going to take on over the next months, and a conversation that is going to pull in global leaders and global brands. And it’s going to be a very fascinating fight.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, but, Frank Foer, does he really emerge stronger after this vote, or is he — is his rule going forward under a shadow because of what happened?

FRANKLIN FOER: It’s under more than a shadow. As Roger said, the FBI and the Department of Justice has now launched this major investigation.

And, look, just like in Chicago, the hope is that you turn the smaller fry and it ends up going to the big kahuna. On top of that, FIFA’s power depends on money. And the money comes from the sponsorship that goes to the World Cup. And it depends on people participating in the World Cup, and there is going to be a lot of noise about major federations withdrawing from FIFA, withdrawing from the World Cup, and if that…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which is what the U.S. and some Europeans are talking about doing, or not from the World Cup, but withdrawing from FIFA.

FRANKLIN FOER: Exactly, well, which would entail withdrawing from the World Cup, which is a major commitment that would remake the global game.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me come back to you, Roger Bennett.

What do we look forward to in this coming term?  We know the investigations continue. Can international soccer continue in any semblance of a normal operation, given what’s taken place this week?

ROGER BENNETT: Sepp Blatter won, but he only won in FIFA land.

The next steps will take place in the real world. We will see what kind of cards the FBI have. I would be fascinated to know what kind of conversations are going on in the boardrooms of Visa, Coca-Cola, Budweiser and McDonald’s, the big American sponsors of this World Cup cycle, now that they know that their brand is being tarnished in the American papers, being linked the 1,200 deaths and rising that are occurring in Qatar through slave labor as they’re setting the stadia for the 2022 World Cup.

But we don’t have to wait that long to find out what Sepp Blatter’s next move. The women’s World Cup kicks off in Canada next week. It is going to be fascinating to see which of FIFA’s leaders, whether Sepp Blatter himself will turn up for his great tournament that is going to take place with the world watching across Canada, or whether he fears an extradition treaty and rumors that he will be arrested as soon as he sets foot in Canada. It will be fascinating to watch.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Frank, you were going to add something.

FRANKLIN FOER: Well, two points here.

One is, he’s always been very disparaging of the women’s game. And that’s one among his many sins. Secondly, we shouldn’t let these U.S. corporations off the hook. Everybody’s known about FIFA’s corruption for well over a decade and everybody played along in this corrupt system.

The United States Soccer Federation played along in this corrupt system. And that’s the way that corruption works. That’s the way that he has prevailed even today, which is that the system continues until it collapsed. And our tolerance for it is really just kind of an astonishing fact of modernity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just very quickly to both of you and finally, Frank, why should people — there are a lot of people watching who may not pay attention to soccer. Why does this matter to everyone else watching?

FRANKLIN FOER: Well, first of all, this is corruption on a world, historic, grand scale.

There are very few organizations that have kind of built themselves up, and with such brazen, out-in-the-open, venal behavior. And it’s persisted for a very long time. And to watch it collapse, as it is collapsing, even if today’s election didn’t throw out the dictator, is an amazing thing to watch. It’s important.

Secondly, there are human consequences. There’s the death toll that Roger described. There are all the stadia that were built in all these countries, which sucked money from the public coffers. You see these stadiums in just the most ridiculous outreaches of Brazil that are never going to be used ever again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Roger Bennett, what would you add finally to why those who don’t follow soccer should pay attention?

ROGER BENNETT: I mean, the FBI case revolves around hundreds of millions of dollars of money, wire fraud, racketeering, bribery taking place on American soil.

The lead protagonist is a whistle-blower, Chuck Blazer, who lived in the Trump Tower, and had creamed off enough money to have a huge floor for his own use and a $6,000-a-month apartment just for his own cats. He’s turned evidence. They’re now trying to roll up with his evidence, and try and roll it up like Avon Barksdale in “The Wire” and land Sepp Blatter.

But this is an American story that’s taken place in America, the crimes have taken place here. And if America cracks FIFA, it will be their greatest gift to the world since the Marshall Plan.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it’s an extraordinary story. And we thank both of you, Roger Bennett, Frank Foer.

Thank you both.

ROGER BENNETT: Thank you, Judy.

FRANKLIN FOER: Thanks.

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