Alan Hubbard

There must have been times during the recent jaw-dropping days of Blatter-gate when those observing the FBI’s timely swoop on Zurich’s Baur au Lac Hotel, disappointed that the biggest fish in FIFA’s sea of sleaze was himself not caught up in the timely dragnet of his allegedly corrupt acolytes, echoed the famous exhortation of the 12th century British monarch Henry II.

“Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” implored the king in frustration at the murky machinations of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas A’Becket.

Eventually someone did. With a knife in the back as he knelt at the altar.

The history lesson was obviously not lost on Sepp Blatter with another of his erstwhile henchmen now under arrest, the American Chuck Blazer, apparently singing like a bird as he plea-bargains with US Department of Justice. 

Blatter decided on a timely bit of "hari-kari" before the back stabbers got to him first.  

One wonders if that self-inflicted wound was the only means to prise away the seemingly unassailable despot from clinging on to power.  

What is it about sport that attracts as figureheads some of whose actions range from at worst the unacceptably despotic to at best unpleasantly autocratic?

Men largely in their twilight years...

Sepp Blatter is following a trail blazed by many other sports administrators in the past
Sepp Blatter is following a trail blazed by many other sports administrators in the past ©AFP/Getty Images

You can go back to Avery Brundage, the American multi-millionaire who presided over the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in times when participants were treated more like serfs than stars.

Not for nothing was he known as "Slavery Avery".

Intolerant and dictatorial, he brooked no argument from anyone, particularly over keeping the Olympics wholly amateur. His tenure also remains tainted for his seeming callousness in hastily ordering the resumption of the Games after the Black September massacre of the  Israeli athetes at Munich in 1972.

At least the present pleasant IOC incumbent, Thomas Bach, does not bear the hallmark of the Great Dictator; neither did his predecessor Jacques Rogge nor the affable Lord Killanin, who followed Brundage.

But we hesitate to to say the same about Juan Antonio Samaranch, who seemed to enjoy a bit of cap-doffing, liked to summon royalty and political bigwigs to his luxurious lair in Barcelona and was immovable when Salt Lake City, the IOC's own corruption imbroglio, occurred on his watch.

Throughout his 21 years in office - the longest sine Baron Pierre de Coubertin - Samaranch, who was created a marquess by the King of Spain in 1991, was able to ensure that the IOC was packed with members who waved through his decisions. Indeed, his style was so aristocratic that he insisted on being referred to by his former ambassadorial title of "Your Excellency".

But at least he introduced reforms in the wake of Salt Lake which stand the IOC in good stead today.

Juan Antonio Samaranch, pictured following his appointment in 1980, was another controversial figurehead ©Getty Images
Juan Antonio Samaranch, pictured following his appointment in 1980, was another controversial figurehead ©Getty Images

Italy’s Dr Primo Nebiolo was an an example of a more dubious autocracy. When he ran the then International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) he was once reputed to have personally ordered a positive drugs test sample from a global track superstar to be poured  away during the inaugural World Athletics Championships in Rome because he did not want the event tarnished by scandal.

One of his lordly predecessors. Britain’s Marquess of Exeter, was also something of a tyrant when it came to imposing his will on the sport.

Rather like another Briton who imperiously rules a world sport, Formula One’s 84-year-old long-serving supremo Bernie Ecclestone. No-one would dare wave a chequered flag at him.

Irishman Pat McQuaid’s eight-year spell as boss of world cycling. like that of his predecessor, the Dutchman Hein Verbruggen, was also an era of defiant  autocracy pockmarked by drugs scandals.

However in boxing the King is dead. Not literally, of course as Don King is still very much alive and in his eighties but the one-time Godfather of the fight game is now a back number, without a champion to his name.

King has been superseded by a new ring czar, one Al Haymon the mystery man behind Floyd Mayweather jnr and over 100 other top fighters including Britain’s former Olympic medallist Amir Khan. The mogul from the music industry has brought boxing back to terrestrial television in the US, establishing himself as the most powerful and influential figure in the sport.

Yet he is rarely seen in public and never gives interviews; even Mayweather refers to him as "The Ghost".

However in the last 40 years no sport has been run with such singularly authoritative ruthlessness as football.

This began after the benign stewardship of England’s Sir Stanley Rous, who was deposed as FIFA President by Blatter’s predecessor and mentor João Havelange in 1974

A former Olympic swimmer, Brazilian lawyer and business magnate Havelange ruled football’s governing body for 24 years, setting the blueprint for Blatter in ways of establishing a popular support base by spraying financial largesse to those nations by no means powers in world football and giving them equal voting rights within FIFA with those who are.

How astonishing is it that one of Blatter’s vice-presidents now under arrest, Jeffrey Webb, has been in such an exalted position despite representing the Cayman Islands, whose entire poplation wouldn’t fill Wembley Stadium and whose contribution to world football is about equal to that of the Isle of Wight.  

It is probably no exaggeration to say that the knowledge of football tactics among many of FIFA’s 209 members is limited to the free kick-back.

FIFA has taken sleaze and controversy to even greater levels than other bodies ©Getty Images
FIFA has taken sleaze and controversy to even greater levels than other bodies ©Getty Images

In fact FIFA officials were receiving bribes long before Blatter became President. According to Swiss court documents released in 2011, Havelange, who served from 1974 to 1998, and his son-in-law Ricardo Teixeira - a former FIFA official and former President of the Brazilian Football Federation - received around $42 million (£28 million/€38 million) in bungs between 1992 and 2000 from now defunct marketing group ISL in exchange for FIFA broadcasting rights.

While under IOC investigation in 2011 for reports that he’d also received $1 million (£650,000/€900,000) in bribes from Swiss-based ISL, Havelange stepped down from his position as FIFA Honorary President and the investigation was formally ended. He is now 99, and in ill heath.

But the extent of Havelange’s alleged corrupt dealings while at FIFA, which go back as far as 1992, were not fully revealed until 2010, eight years after the marketing company that he was alleged to have taken bribes from went bankrupt with debts of $180 million (£118 million/€160 million).

I recall first meeting both him and Blatter in Singapore 20- years ago. Then Blatter was a leg man - and not just because he was President of the International Society for the Preservation of the Suspender - as secretary general of FIFA under Havelange, and very much his bag carrier.

I interviewed them in their hotel suite and during hour we talked the door was opened to a succession of hotel staff bearing gifts from local and international companies, sports organisations and politicians. So many boxes of shirts, sweaters, crates of booze, soft drinks. toiletries and other goodies were stacked high against the walls. At one stage Blatter turned to Havelange and  smirked: ”It looks as if we will have to hire another plane to get these home, Mr President.”

And so it goes on.

Why is is it that such panjandrums who preside over skulduggery and wrong-doing never fall on their swords these days.

This is endemic not only in sport, but politics, the UK’s National Health Service, the police, social services and the banking industry.

No, they always do a Blatter and plead: “I’m going to stay on as I’m the best one to clear up this mess.” A mess that in most cases they helped create.

Such is the current scenario in the FIFA fiefdom, or if you prefer, thief-dom.

Never mind Prince Ali, I doubt even Muhammad Ali could knockout septic-Sepp, though in amassing 70-odd votes the impressive Jordanian  did manage to inflict an embarrassing bloody nose.

And make no mistake, urbane and unruffled as he may appear after his re-election for a fifth term, Blatter is sweating, with his back to the ropes.

He is still inwardly fuming over losing his prestigious position as football’s representative on the IOC, a valuable power base. Automatically appointed as an IOC member in 1999 soon after becoming head of football’s governing body, he will be forced to step down when he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 80 after the Rio Olympics in next year.

Blatter. pictured with IOC President Thomas Bach, faces the blow of losing his IOC membership next year ©AFP/Getty Images
Sepp Blatter. pictured with IOC President Thomas Bach, faces the blow of losing his IOC membership next year ©AFP/Getty Images

This follows a number of reforms introduced by Bach, the IOC  deciding not to allow an extension for members beyond the age of 70 and refusing to implement a recommendation, backed by Blatter, that heads of governing bodies should be allowed to continue after reaching 80 to complete their terms of office.

Ironically the original 70-years age limit was brought in after Blatter became an IOC member as one of reforms following the corruption scandals over Salt Lake.

So he will be desperate not to lose the FIFA role and the privileged lifestyle that goes with it. But I happen to agree with Greg Dyke, chair of the English FA, that this new term will be relatively short-lived. 

But I doubted anyone thought it would be this short-lived!

The delicious irony is that FIFA’s very own turbulent priest has ended up stabbed by his own hand, and not by one of his own Blazers.