May 27, 2015, will go down as the most extraordinary day in FIFA’s history.

It was a day which could prove to be a game-changer - for football’s world governing body, its president Sepp Blatter and game itself.

There was complete bewilderment and shock at the dawn raid and arrest of senior FIFA officials in Zurich.

By invading the Hotel Baur au Lac, the luxury residence where FIFA’s top brass are accommodated on their trips to Switzerland, the FBI had struck at the heart of FIFA.

 

In the past, the hotel has provided a haven of tranquility for Executive Committee (Ex-Co) members. But their humiliating arrest - bundled into waiting cars via a side exit - was the first sign that the American prosecutors, with the co-operation of the Swiss authorities, meant business.

The timing could not have been more sensational - two days ahead of the FIFA presidential election. But for the FBI, it was simply a matter of convenience. Here was a chance to pounce and arrest their targets in one foul swoop.

Rumours of corruption have swirled around FIFA for years. But past crises have been managed from within the organisation by Blatter and his acolytes.

The most recent inquiry, into the decisions to award the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar, proved to be toothless. That prompted the resignation of American investigator Michael Garcia, the latest in a long line of critics of FIFA’s policy of self-policing.

Unchartered territories

FBI’s involvement has taken the issue of FIFA corruption to another level. Here we have real allegations, backed up by real evidence. Most importantly, there is a real desire to secure convictions and punishments for the offenders.

American justice is boldly going where Swiss investigators have feared to tread in the past.

The result has been some truly extraordinary allegations. Senior officials stand accused of bribery totalling more than $150m from commercial deals linked to competitions organised by central American and Caribbean confederation CONCACAF and its South American sister body CONMEBOL.

It is also alleged that former CONCACAF president and FIFA vice-president Jack Warner received $10m as a bribe in order to vote for South Africa to host the 2010 World Cup.

Putin (R) has issued his backing for Blatter [Reuters]

Crucial to the allegations is the testimony of Chuck Blazer, the former CONCACAF general secretary and FIFA Ex-Co member who has turned against his former colleagues.

Blazer, who currently lies seriously ill in a New York hospital, was accused by the American Inland Revenue Service of failing to pay tax on millions of dollars of bonus payments he received from CONCACAF commercial deals.

In return for immunity from prosecution, he agreed to spill the beans on his former colleagues - with spectacular results.

World Cups' bidding process

In a separate development, Swiss authorities announced a criminal investigation into the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. It is too early to tell where the Swiss investigators have uncovered new evidence of foul play from.

The biggest worry for Blatter and FIFA will be if any of the arrested Ex-Co members follow Blazer’s example and makes a bid for immunity from prosecution by offering chapter and verse on the 2018 and 2022 decisions.

FIFA's reaction, from chief spokesman Walter De Gregorio, was that the election will go ahead on Friday.

European governing body UEFA decided against boycotting the elections and offered its support for Prince Ali.

UEFA President Michel Platini has given his backing to Prince Ali [Getty Images]

Blatter will try to toughen things out.

We are likely to hear him say, “I don’t pick the executive committee” as he attempts to rise above the fray. He will try to turn matters on their head and present himself as the man to root out evil from his organisation.
Blatter has a fondness for maritime analogies. He likes to refer to himself of a captain of a ship in stormy seas, leading the crew through the storm and into calmer waters.

Despite the current crisis, the odds are heavily stacked in Blatter’s favour. The Asian Football Confederation has already re-affirmed its support for Blatter. With the backing of Africa and the Americas (though not the USA), he will win comfortably.

Money matters

However, any victory for Blatter will highlight the fundamental contradiction at the heart of FIFA.

FIFA is now a vast global corporation that raises millions of dollars through TV rights and sponsorship. That money is redistributed back to the 209 members, the majority show their gratitude by backing Blatter at the annual FIFA Congress.

He has not needed the support of Europe or North America, even though it is in those countries where the sponsors have most influence.

There will no doubt be calls for Blatter to step aside and take on a role as “honorary president” alongside a new structure and leadership. For Blatter, that is not an option. He is married to FIFA.

It is often said that he is the first person to arrive at FIFA House every morning, and the last to leave at night.
However, there are also signs that the tumultuous events of the past 24 hours could yet be a trigger for Blatter’s eventual exit from FIFA.

His predecessor, the Brazilian Joao Havelange, carried on until into his 80s with no indication that he would step down.

However, the 1997 decision of the FIFA Ex-Co to award the 2002 World Cup hosting rights jointly to Japan and South Korea - and not to the Japanese, Havelange’s preferred sole candidate – was the decisive factor in persuading Havelange that his time was up. 

A year later he stood down.

For Blatter, the next 24 hours are likely to be crucial as it becomes clearer how much support there is for his continued presence. The final say may yet lie with the sponsors, his ultimate backers.

We may be close to reaching the tipping point where sponsors and TV companies do not want to be associated with a tarnished brand like FIFA.

If and when that day arrives, FIFA could change forever.

Federal agents carried out boxes of evidence from headquarters of the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF,) [AP]

Source: Al Jazeera