After powerful FIFA sponsors demanded his immediate resignation, a key question surrounded Sepp Blatter on Saturday: can the sleaze-tainted president of world football‘s governing body survive until his planned departure in February?
Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Visa and Budweiser in separate statements Friday called on Blatter to step down, a week after Swiss prosecutors opened a criminal investigation against the 79-year-old over mismanagement.
But Blatter remained defiant, saying his departure would not be in FIFA’s best interests and that he had no plans to resign before February, when a special election has been called to choose his replacement.
That position may prove untenable.
Exposure of the rot within FIFA had previously sparked widespread calls for immediate change, but the rare display of unity from four major companies marked the first time key financial backers had explicitly demanded Blatter’s resignation.
“The sponsors have the financial power to force change at FIFA,” said Cobus de Swardt, managing director of the corruption watchdog Transparency International.
– Blatter vs. the money –
The unprecedented crisis within world football began on May 27, when nine FIFA officials and five sports marketing executives were charged by the US Justice Department over bribery worth more than $150 million (133 million euros) dating back to 1991.
Blatter was re-elected as FIFA’s president days later, but on June 2, made the shock announcement that he was prepared to go — on a timeline that he subsequently laid out.
FIFA’s powerful sponsors on Friday said that timeline had become unacceptable after Swiss prosecutors revealed evidence of murky financial dealings directly linked to Blatter.
The Coca-Cola company said FIFA’s reputation deteriorates “every day that passes” with Blatter in office.
“Coca Cola is more than a valued sponsor, they are the foundation of Blatter’s position in FIFA,” Patrick Nally, a prominent sports marketing executive who has previously partnered with FIFA, said on Twitter.
Coca-Cola has had stadium advertising at every World Cup since 1950, and has been an official sponsor of the quadriennial tournament since 1978.
The partnership, believed to currently be worth tens of millions of dollars per year, has been extended through to 2022.
Visa, another top-tier sponsor of past World Cups, also levelled a direct blow saying that “no meaningful reform can be made under FIFA’s existing leadership,” with similar comments coming from McDonald’s and Budweiser’s parent company, Anheuser-Busch InBev.
Top sponsors based outside the US have not yet gone as far.
Adidas on Saturday reiterated its stance that change at FIFA was vital, without specifically mentioning Blatter, while there was no immediate comment from Hyundai or Gazprom.
In a statement released swiftly after the resignation call from Coca-Cola, Blatter’s New York attorney Richard Cullen said his client “believes firmly that his leaving office now would not be in the best interest of FIFA nor would it advance the process of reform and therefore, he will not resign.”
– Crisis gets deeper –
FIFA’s leadership is facing crises on various fronts, aside from the US indictments, and the Swiss probe that is targeting Blatter but which has also implicated the front-runner to replace him, European footballchief Michel Platini.
Blatter’s former right-hand man, secretary general Jerome Valcke, was suspended last month over allegations that he was aware of a black market ticket scheme surrounding the 2014 World Cup. Valcke denied the claims.
Meanwhile, FIFA’s own ethics committee could suspend the president at any time, as the independent panel typically probes any official who is subject to even initial suspicion, a tag which certainly applies to Blatter.
But, given the financial heft of the companies involved, some believe the resignation demand from the four top sponsors will make it impossible for the embattled Swiss national to hang on.
“It is public statements (from sponsors) that can and will force real reform, despite Blatter’s obvious desire to stay at FIFA,” Transparency International’s De Swardt said. – Agence France-Presse