'The game is my passion and I cannot abandon football'

Interview Sepp Blatter

Sepp Blatter's (79) voice is trembling. In the small prayer room on the third underground floor of FIFA's headquarters in Zürich he seems to be losing himself in his own singing. 'Großer Gott, wir loben dich; Herr, wir preisen deine Stärke.' Great God, we praise you; Lord, we praise your strength.

His left hand is in his trouser pocket, while his right hand is beating imaginary time. Standing there, lustily singing a song of his home canton Wallis, he resembles a ruler who stubbornly continues to govern while his kingdom is on the verge of collapse.  

The reality is different. On 2 June, four days after being re-elected as president, Blatter unexpectedly threw in the towel. Under pressure of two criminal investigations -seven high-ranking FIFA officials were arrested in Zürich - he announced that he would put his mandate at disposal. Although the authorities have not linked him personally to the corruption affair under investigation, his and FIFA's position had become untenable.  

Since his surrender, the Swiss native has kept mostly silent. He is now a lame duck. He has lost all faith in the media and FIFA's press corps would rather not have him giving interviews anymore. At this moment, however, six months before his successor will be elected, he has decided to speak after all, to De Volkskrant. 'I have to protect my family.'

Was giving up your mandate the hardest decision you had to make in your career at FIFA?

'The mounting pressure on me and FIFA left me no other choice. I was faced with a tsunami. It was a shock. It was not an easy decision to take, but it gave me time to think about what had gone wrong.'

What did go wrong?

'That it happened so shortly before the presidential election congress.'

Are you referring to the arrests of FIFA officials at the Baur au Lac Hotel?

'Yes, the intervention by the American and Swiss authorities. Something was wrong. It was a shock. But in our world we are used to living with shocks.'  

Blatter lets out a deep breath. 'Now I can breathe again, see again, observe again.'

Some people around you are convinced that something major happened in the days following your re-election that made you decide to step down after all.

'That is something I wish to keep to myself. What has happened, will be part of my legacy. It felt highly uncomfortable at the time. Anyhow, we are all survivors and I am sure that it has been the right solution for FIFA. It was a good solution.'

You do not wish to talk about it, but do you take full responsibility?

I don't need any help when it comes to my personal integrity

'I did it to protect the institution and my family against the attacks on FIFA, not to protect myself. I don't need any help when it comes to my personal integrity.'

To what attacks are you referring?

'Have you seen the press conference by Mrs Loretta Lynch [the US Attorney General - ed.]? She stood there together with the head of the FBI, portraying FIFA as an enterprise that resembles the mafia. Whatever.'

That sounds odd. The press conference you are referring to took place two days before your re-election. You could have withdrawn then. What we would like to know is what happened in the four days between your re-election and the press conference where you announced your resignation.

Visibly irritated: 'I have already said that one day I will tell exactly what happened. I do not wish to go into details now, because of the ongoing investigations. I don't want to hamper those investigations. I keep this to myself and I feel good about it.'

What would have happened if you had not announced you were leaving?

'You know, you can't redo the past. This has been my decision and I will have to live with it.'

It is obvious that you do not like to discuss this, but still we would like to know a few details. The announcement of your resignation seemed a rather hurried affair. The press room hadn't even been prepared.

'I'm always good for a surprise.'

Still, your usual flair and elegance seemed to have left you. It was as if someone had put you there.

'It was at the end of a long day, not in the morning. And it was dark.'

Does looking back on that day make you feel bad?

'No. It was a special day in my life, but then again, my life now consists only of special days. Especially the days that are to come. When you're nearing 80, each day is a gift.'

You are competitive. You like to be on the offensive. Just like you were in your active football career. But that day you were on the defensive. What in hindsight would you have done differently?

'I repeat. I don't want to go into that. It's done. One day I will reveal these things.'

When?

'When I am no longer president of FIFA.'

The interview with Blatter takes place in the presidential lounge of the FIFA headquarters. He is sitting on a couch, sipping espresso. On a pedestal behind him is a golden replica of the World Cup. On the wall, a black-and-white photograph of the junior A-team of Visp, 1953. The young Blatter is in the centre. At times he seems to talk on autopilot. When the questions become awkward or when he doesn't like them, he becomes evasive by relating one of his numerous anecdotes or by complementing his conversation partners on their appearance. He delights in disrupting things.  

He points at a large portrait of himself, placed in front of one of the windows. It was a gift from the artist Rolf Knie, who gave it to him in those darkest days after his re-election. 'Football is Sepp Blatter. Sepp Blatter is football', the caption reads. Blatter glows with pride as he speaks about it. According to him it is one of the many expressions of support that he received. 'Many football associations too are still asking me to stay on.'

He and his presidential staff of eight answer them all. But as much as he would like to, staying on is out of the question. His reputation is too damaged to do that. Especially in Western countries he is regarded as a corrupt leader who has lined his pockets at the expense of the game. As of September this year, photographs of him will be on display at the mafia museum in Las Vegas, where they are organising a permanent exhibition about FIFA.

How many houses do you own?

'I have two flats in Venthône, between Sierre and Crans-Montana and I have the FIFA presidential residence in Zürich at my disposal. I also use my daughter's apartment in my home town Visp. But I do not own any palaces.'

How many boats?

'My astrological sign is Pisces. I love water, especially under the shower, but I am not a very good swimmer so I don't feel comfortable on a boat. I don't own one.'

Cars?

'I drive a very small Mercedes, a car that FIFA provides its management with at a modest charge. I also had a car in Visp, but I gave that one to my daughter.'

How often do you go on holiday?

'That depends on how you define holiday. This month, I had three days off and that was just right. I am an active man; I need to keep in motion. It helps to keep your brain, your heart, your soul alert. My last real holiday was shortly after the World Cup in Italy, in 1990.'

People see you as a man who enriches himself with money that should go into football.

I don't even wear tailor-made suits. Okay, they are Italian, but I just buy them off the rack

'I am not an extravaganza. I don't do this work to become rich but because I believe in it. I don't even wear tailor-made suits. Okay, they are Italian, but I just buy them off the rack.'

And yet, FIFA, as well as you yourself, has a huge image problem.

'But not everywhere in the world. Changing your image is difficult. A German poet once said: Allen Menschen recht getan, ist eine Kunst die niemand kann. You can't only have friends.'

But the problem with image is...

'How can Ajax lose to Rapid Wien?'

Yes, incredible. But getting back to image: policymakers in the Netherlands no longer believe that a small country such as ours will be granted the organisation of the World Cup. They think: 'We don't have the money to give to FIFA officials.'

'They don't have to give money to FIFA officials.'

But that is what people think. That is FIFA's reputation.

'Yes, but once people have this idea, they will stick to it. Help me to change this situation.'

The Netherlands and Belgium campaign team came to FIFA's headquarters on bicycles to stress the environment-friendly nature of their bid for the 2018 World Cup. Now they are being ridiculed in the media for being naïve. They should have come driving a Porsche, people say.

'I own a bicycle. My father was a mechanic in the bicycle industry.'

But the bicycles haven't helped the Netherlands and Belgium. They only won a handful of votes.

'The Netherlands and Belgium, but Spain and Portugal too, were naïve. After the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, FIFA decided that countries that could organise the tournament on their own, should get preference. The Netherlands and Belgium knew this, because I have told them so myself.'

Can a small country such as the Netherlands still host a World Cup in the future?

'Certainly. You are a football nation. You have the stadiums, the infrastructure. If one of the smallest countries in the world [Qatar - ed.] can do it, then the Netherlands can do it too.'

Blatter's eye is caught by the gold-framed photograph of Nelson Mandela across the room. The former South African president is holding the World Cup shortly after the country won the bid for the 2010 World Cup. 'He's smiling at me', says Blatter, and he smiles back.  

Allocating the World Cup to this African country led to a great deal of criticism on FIFA in Europe. However, this was nothing compared to the uproar over the fact that now Qatar, a tiny Gulf state with no football history whatsoever, is organising the 2022 World Cup. And although Blatter didn't vote for Qatar, the controversial World Cup allocation has driven him and his family further into a corner.  

Every tweet sent by FIFA from Blatter's personal Twitter account is guaranteed to generate hundreds of furious responses. His only child Corinne recently had her home phone disconnected, as she was being stalked. A gang of conmen from Kenya is spreading forged documents that make the whole Blatter family appear in a bad light.

And yet your family is affected. They are being pestered because of your work.

'Of course it hurts my family more than it does me. I'm used to it. I can defend myself, but it is especially awful when it hurts my granddaughter. The people who have that on their conscience will one day have to account for what they've done.'

Are the people behind this individuals or are organised forces responsible?

'How can the European Parliament draw up a resolution saying that Blatter should not be re-elected as FIFA president? What is this? It is a direct political intervention in sports. It's a violation of the United Nations Charter.'

FIFA is used to all kinds of attacks.

'Those attacks were not directed against FIFA, but against an individual.'

Against you.

'Against me. Indeed.'

Was the bomb threat during the election congress aimed at you?

'No, that wasn't personal. As you know, UEFA felt that the congress should have been cancelled. Then came the bomb threat, of which we don't know all the details yet, but it was intended to stop the congress, so there would be no elections at all.'

You think that UEFA had anything to do with it?

Platini asked me the day before the congress not to attend the elections

'You are from the Netherlands. You have a wide horizon. UEFA said they didn't want to hold elections at this congress. Platini asked me the day before the congress not to attend the elections. I said: "I can't do that. Who will attend the elections if I don't?".'

But could UEFA be behind the bomb threat?

'No, that's not what I said. I only said that you are from the Netherlands and have a wide horizon. UEFA has publicly stated that they didn't want the congress to take place and that they were considering a boycott.'

At this moment, Blatter's personal assistant, who has until now remained silent, intervenes. 'Just to be clear: Mister Blatter never said that UEFA was behind the bomb threat.'

Over the past few years, the relationship between FIFA and the European association has cooled off considerably. UEFA thinks it is powerful because the best players compete in Europe and it can boast the Champions League as one of its prized assets. This antagonises other football continents, such as Africa and Asia, that are booming thanks to FIFA.  

Behind the scenes, in the run-up to the elections in May, UEFA did its utmost to bring down Blatter. The other candidates for Blatter's position, the president of the Dutch association KNVB, Michael van Praag, the former professional player Luis Figo and the Jordanian Prince Ali all had European support. UEFA also orchestrated discussions about what strategy to follow and UEFA president Platini attended a secret meeting in Geneva to decide which candidates should withdraw.

Michel Platini was your friend. Now he is organising the opposition against you. How does that affect you?

Blatter remains silent for quite a while. Then: 'Confucius has said: "Turn your tongue seven times before you answer".'

Why is it so hard to talk about this?

'The only reason one can think of is that there is an anti-FIFA virus in Nyon. I always distinguish between Nyon [where UEFA's headquarters is located - ed.] and the member associations of UEFA. In 2007, when Platini was elected UEFA president, we were still best friends. Soon after, in 2008, this was no longer the case.'

What happened?

The president of FIFA had been sidelined. Just sidelined

'At the opening ceremony of the 2008 European Championship in Switzerland, at the reception, I briefly spoke with the Swiss president Couchepin, whom I knew from the canton Wallis. He said: "I'll see you at the match." It then turned out that I had been placed eight seats away from the centre, far away from him. The president of FIFA had been sidelined. Just sidelined.'

It sounds like a personal issue between Platini and you.

'He has changed. I haven't.'

But why has he changed? What has he got against you?

'I don't know.'

Does it feel like he's backstabbing you?

'You know, there was a time when our relationship was like that of a father and his son. He worked for me for four years at FIFA, after the 1998 World Cup in France. Together we prepared his board memberships of both UEFA and FIFA. In 2007, he also became president of UEFA, with my direct support.'

Reliable sources have told us that he intimidated your family during the election congress in May.

'Yes.'

For the first time during the interview Blatter is getting emotional. He becomes silent and evades eye contact. His hands fold and unfold. In his mind he seems to be going back to the day of his re-election. His family had come to Zürich for moral support.

We heard that your 80-year-old brother Peter cried. He turns silent again. Then:

'I have just spoken to my brother in Crans-Montana. He repeated to me what had happened.'

What did happen?

'I ran into him after lunch at the congress. I could see he had been crying, so I asked him: "What's up?" And I said: "Don't be sad. I'm going to win this. I don't know with how many votes, but I will win these elections. There is no way I can lose out to that prince." My brother didn't say a word.'  

'It was only after the elections that I heard what had taken place. During lunch, Platini had sat down at my brother's table and said: "Tell Sepp to withdraw from the election or he will go to prison".'

As the FIFA president is telling this, his personal assistant gives out a cry. Obviously, she hears this for the first time, too. Blatter seems affected, staring blankly into the distance.

Mr. Blatter, this seems to go beyond rivalry.

'You will have to ask him about his character. I don't know what goes on in his head.'

Does this situation have anything to do with your decision to resign as president?

'No, no. I only realised later what he had said. I did not give up my mandate because of pressure from Platini.'

It looks like Platini will succeed you as FIFA president, even though his reputation is not exactly spotless. Shortly before the 2022 World Cup was assigned to Qatar, he allegedly had dinner in Paris with President Sarkozy and the Crown Prince of Qatar. After Qatar won the bid, Platini's son was given a well-paid position there. Is Platini the right person to reform FIFA and improve its reputation?

'I cannot comment on that. You should comment on it. You are investigative journalists. You wish to know the truth. Everyone is curious about what has happened. But there is something wrong, that much is certain. Something is definitely wrong.'

This concerns your legacy. Platini will take over your job. How does that make you feel?

'The new president cannot change FIFA. When I was elected for the first time, in 1998, there were 34 people working at FIFA. Now there are over 400. We have contracts running unto 2028. No newcomer can ever change that. He may replace a few people at FIFA, but it is the same as with a football club. You can replace Ajax's technical director and coach, but you can't send all the players home.'

Can the new president change FIFA's image?

'Where do all these problems come from? The people that were arrested here are suspects in matters that occurred within their confederations, not within FIFA.'

But some of them were also on the FIFA executive committee.

'They were with FIFA, that is correct. They were part of the FIFA family, but what they are being accused of has nothing to do with FIFA. FIFA has no influence on these matters, let alone FIFA's president.'

You keep speaking of a family that will solve its own problems.

'At the moment I prefer the word "entity". The family is a bit out of the question now.'

The worst storm that was raging around FIFA has quieted down by the announcement of Blatter putting his mandate at disposal, but that doesn't mean that the president's life is now carefree. This summer, for the first time since he took office in 1998, he was not present at the final stages of a World Cup. He explains his absence at the World Cup for women in Canada by saying that he doesn't want to take 'travel risks'. The arrests shortly before the election congress have turned everything upside down.  

Would these arrests also have been made if you would have withdrawn from the elections?

'I am really not knowledgeable about such details, although I would like to know more. The investigations are still ongoing.'

You have said earlier that you knew that something would happen before the congress.

'I had the feeling that there was something in the air, but never in my life could I have foreseen something as disturbing and shocking as this.'

(The interview continues below the picture.)

Was that shock directly related to the election congress? Blatter slaps his right leg repeatedly, underscoring his words.

'Help me to find the truth. This tsunami. This shocking raid or whatever it was... There should be an investigation as to why this happened two days before the congress.'

He rubs his hands. 'Why were there journalists of The New York Times in the lobby of the Baur au Lac hotel at 6 o'clock in the morning? They had no reason to be there.'

You don't trust the Americans. Is that why you did not attend the women's World Cup in Canada?

The system works in such a way that one may be interrogated when visiting a country where America has influence

'Listen. We don't know exactly what goes on behind the scenes, so we have to anticipate what may happen. Only a few weeks ago, the Americans arrested a Swiss banker in Italy. 24 hours later he was in Miami. So I'm not going anywhere. No warrant for my arrest has been issued. I am not under investigation. I have not been asked to testify. None of these things. However, the system works in such a way that one may be interrogated when visiting a country where America has influence.'

If there is no warrant for your arrest, then what risk is there in traveling to another country?

'My lawyers here in Switzerland are quite sure that nothing will happen as long as there is no arrest warrant. But suppose we announced that Blatter is going to Canada. Then nobody would be interested in the World Cup matches any more. Everyone would be focused on Blatter. I protected the game by not going.'

Can one have friends in this world?

'Once you reach the top, where I still find myself, you have no friends anymore. No friends at all. The most loyal man in my entourage is the longest incumbent vice president, Issa Hayatou [president of the African football Confederation CAF - ed.].

Is he a friend of yours?

'I said that he is a man on whom I can count. That is something else.'

It sounds lonely. You visit all these countries and yet you have no friends.

'Friendship can also be that people tell you the truth.'

It is inevitable. His farewell is nearing. He doesn't like to talk about it. He prefers to speak about the reforms he still wishes to realise before he leaves. Or about the FIFA museum that is being built in Zürich's inner city. He has urged the construction workers to finish the project before he leaves the organisation. He frequently checks if they are still on schedule.  

According to Blatter, there is a great need for a place where tourists can absorb the illustrious history of FIFA and football. He is also working on a coffee table book, as he calls it. 'With many photographs and anecdotes. It's going to be interesting.'

Do you have any idea what you will be doing on the 27th of February, the first day after your period at FIFA?

'The 27th of February is very far away. Very, very far away.'

I'm not in my last months. I hope that I will not have to go yet

You are now in your last months at FIFA.

'No, I'm not in my last months. I hope that I will not have to go yet.' He points upwards. 'No, no, no, no. I've been given permission to talk directly with the Pope.'

You've said earlier that your mother had called upon you from heaven to join her.

'My time hasn't come yet. She was not quite right.'

We were not referring to the end of your time on earth, but with FIFA.

'Forty-one years. Forty-one years with FIFA.'

And soon there will be nothing but total freedom.

'There is never total freedom when you have been involved with an organisation for 41 years. The game is my passion and I cannot abandon football. Football is more than just a game. It is a philosophy of life. But I will finally be able to enjoy my private life.'

Will you still feel responsible for FIFA, even after your farewell?

'One always remains responsible. In business a father can hand over his company to his son. At FIFA this is impossible. I don't know what is going to happen to my legacy.'  

In the prayer room at FIFA's headquarters Blatter's voice is fading away. 'Wie du warst vor aller Zeit, so bleibst du in Ewigkeit.' Who you always were, you will remain in eternity. The words echo through the corridors.