David Owen

There was a sign early this morning in Zurich that not even the long arm of the United States Department of Justice had succeeded in undermining FIFA President Sepp Blatter’s legendary sang froid.

At 7.15am I powered up my laptop to find a Tweet from @seppblatter alluding not to his impending date with destiny, but to the 39 football fans who lost their lives at Heysel 30 years ago. Said Blatter: “We will remember them today.”

An hour or so later, out in the rather ugly Zurich suburb where the events of the 65th FIFA Congress were set to unfold, mainly stony-faced Congress delegates were disembarking from their coaches and starting to file into the auditorium under the combined assault of camera crews and a noisy pro-Palestine demonstration.

Very few would state their intentions, although the man from the Dominican Republic did tell me he was going to vote for a fifth Blatter term. I consoled myself by congratulating the Tanzanian representative on his splendid green, black, yellow and blue national-flag tie.

A local man and his curly-haired dog called Bimbo drank the strange spectacle in.

Once the Congress got under way, seven minutes late, with rousing music and one of many short videos, there were quickly further small hints that it was all going to be alright-on-the-night for the 79-year-old Swiss incumbent.

A proposal to confirm the entitlement to vote at Congress of the national associations of Guinea Bissau, Montserrat, Sao Tomé and Principe and South Sudan - an opportunity for supporters of Blatter’s sole challenger, Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein of Jordan, to make mischief - was approved overwhelmingly.

Sepp Blatter was not lacking for congratulations following his election victory ©AFP/Getty Images
Sepp Blatter was not lacking for congratulations following his election victory ©AFP/Getty Images

The old man’s Presidential address - one of many opportunities during a long day when he had the opportunity to take over the microphone - was relatively assured and combative, particularly when passing comment on the timing of the arrests and indictments of football officials that dominated the world news and cast a pall over FIFA in the run-up to the Congress.

 “I am not going to use the word ‘coincidence’, but I do have a small question-mark,” Blatter observed.

A wily and seasoned campaigner, he also took care to thank the organisation’s sponsors, some of whom have been shifting uneasily in their seats in recent days.

By the time a Reuters story disclosed around lunch-time that sports power-broker and, as of tonight, FIFA Executive Committee member Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah deemed the Swiss septuagenarian the right man for the job, the mood was starting to sway perceptibly in the incumbent’s favour.

A powerful contribution by Isha Johansen, President of the Sierra Leone Football Association, on the Ebola outbreak that had devastated her West African nation - in the course of which she revealed that $50,000 (£33,000/€44,500) offered by Blatter was “the first international donation Sierra Leone ever received” to fight the disease - while spoken with great emotion and palpable sincerity, would have done no harm either.

By around 2.10pm, after a segment on FIFA’s handshake for peace initiative, Blatter, his old twinkle back, was feeling buoyant enough to suggest, “One day we could try it in Congress”.

This produced enough laughter to encourage him further: “Okay, Congress, let’s do it.” And they did.

Sepp Blatter and Jerome Valcke engage in a somewhat farcical handshake for peace ©AFP/Getty Images
Sepp Blatter and Jerome Valcke engage in a somewhat farcical handshake for peace ©AFP/Getty Images

The much more momentous handshake between Jibril Rajoub, President of the Palestinian Football Association, and Ofer Enei, his Israeli counterpart, was, as far as Blatter’s resurgent re-election prospects were concerned, the icing on the cake.

An important lesson to be learnt - or re-learnt - from this surreal day beside the lake in Zurich in other words is that one of the reasons International Sports Federation (IF) Presidents are so difficult to dislodge is that Congressional proceedings can provide them with numerous ways of tilting the electoral balance, little by little, in their favour.

Repeated references to the volume of FIFA development spending was another example of this.

When, at around 4pm, he delivered his candidate’s speech - having first delegated Presidential duties to Issa Hayatou, the FIFA senior vice-president from Cameroon who ran against him unsuccessfully in 2002 - a digression on the nature of time that sounded a bit like a highly condensed Theory of Relativity provoked widespread hilarity in the media seats.

The electorate, however, was lapping it up - as was shown a little while later when they granted him a fifth term of office by the handy, if not overwhelming, margin of 60 votes.

Now that he has pulled his Presidential prospects out of the fire yet again, an obvious, burning question is left hanging: What now?

Protesters like these outside the Congress in Lausanne gave an indication of challenges ahead for FIFA ©Getty Images
Protesters like these outside the Congress in Lausanne gave an indication of challenges ahead for FIFA ©Getty Images

It simply cannot be business as usual. As UEFA President Michel Platini observed wryly on the eve of the election, if FIFA has not reformed itself, “I have the strange feeling that it is the FBI who will do it".

If anything, when football’s top brass wake up tomorrow, they will find themselves with even more of a credibility problem than they have had hitherto: how could they even countenance not changing the captain - to stray into Blatter’s trademark zone of nautical metaphors - after finding themselves adrift in such mountainous seas? That at least must be what football followers in many parts of the world must be thinking.

It is an old political cliché, but winning this election may well turn out to be the easy part for Blatter.

And life may start to get more difficult as soon as next week, when UEFA meets in Berlin.