Sepp Blatter is stepping down to a chorus of joyous jeers from the Western press. Across Europe and the Americas, fans are rejoicing and clinking Bud Lite Limes now the man most tied to corruption in world football has finally been dethroned.
But all these celebrations mask the reaction throughout much of the rest of the world. There, Blatter is something of a hero, the old mountain goat who has fought for them against the rich and entitled countries who traditionally commanded FIFA. There, the loss of Blatter is a minor tragedy that may leave them vulnerable depending on who takes over next.
After all, Blatter won resounding reelection only Friday, convincing 60% of the nations in the world to cast a ballot for him even after the corruption scandal broke earlier in the week. Western commentators tend to shuffle that result under the rug as a product of bribery, but surely not every one of those 133 nations had Blatter money in their pockets.
The truth is that rightly or wrongly the poorer and smaller nations felt protected by Blatter. It was Blatter’s insistence that began moving the World Cup out of the OECD world and to the rest of it. The locations of the event since he took office manage to hit all four corners of the globe: South Korea/Japan, Germany, South Africa, Brazil. Add to that Russia and Qatar, and that’s quite a good spread. Certainly far better than what came before: France, the US, Italy, Mexico, Spain, Argentina.
Of course, not all of that was his initiative. He certainly can’t claim sole credit for Korea and Japan, which was planned under his predecessor’s watch. Many would argue FIFA would have widened its tent just as it did under Blatter, simply without quite so distinct a whiff of bought votes, but that will remain forever a hypothetical of history.
After last week, we now know for sure that much of the expansion of the sport came with a price tag. South Africa bribed its way to the World Cup. Allegations about Brazil are likely to be proved true in time, as well as those that have always surrounded Russia and Qatar.
But bribes aside, wasn’t a World Cup in South Africa worth having? Other than the buzz of the vuvuzelas, it was an astounding success, a moment of triumph for a country that has struggled into new prominence after the end of apartheid.
Africa may never have got a World Cup without Blatter. His insistence on moving the Cup around has certainly been his biggest success, and now his ultimate undoing. The world forgave South Africa and Brazil, despite tacit knowledge of bribery. But the choices made in 2010 pushed Blatter’s vision to the breaking point. If Russia was a step too far, Qatar took several leaps beyond that.
Now, with calls to take the World Cup from Qatar and whispers of UEFA and elements of CONCACAF and CONMEBOL breaking away, it’s easy to see why some nations would cling to Blatter. Much ignored in the legitimate cries of corruption is which countries are on either side of that debate. As any American or Brit could tell you, there is plenty of blatant, lawful corruption in Western systems. While it’s simplistic to conflate business dinners and political contributions with $10 million put in a man’s pocket, neither system is clean. And if FIFA only recognizes the Western system as legitimate, it very much limits how much power smaller, poorer countries can have in the global game.
Blatter made a point of counteracting this, weakening Europe’s voice over decades. He funneled Western money into football projects in small countries. He strengthened the hand of Asia and Africa. In a world where those voices are repeatedly quieted, that was a heroic choice to many.
The chief beneficiary of all this was, of course, Sepp Blatter himself. An unforgiving reading of his accomplishments would show him as a man who always worked to maximize his bribes: move the World Cup to nations without qualms about direct money transfers for favors; weakened the hand of countries with strong financial laws; invest FIFA money in enough nations to build an unbreakable coalition to keep the money train coming.
But a more generous portrait is of a man who took power from the rich and played by the rules of the poor in order to let them share in the game.
None of this takes away from the man’s extensive corruption, nor his egregious comments that would have ousted almost any other major figure in the world short of a dictator. On balance, it’s better for football and the world to have Blatter gone. But his reign is not the simple cartoonish grab for money and power that most reports make out. He’ll continue to be a hero to many, and there is more than a little reason for that.