Interview: Sepp Blatter
The former Fifa president on ageing, his enemies and his fight to clear his name
You’ve been out of football for five years. That gives you a lot of time to reflect, to think, to review your actions. What are your thoughts about what has happened in football over this period?
In anybody’s life, and in my life, when you are at the head of such an organisation, like Fifa, you recall when you started in the organisation, in 1975. I took the decision to join Fifa at the end of 1974, when I met Joao Havelange, then the new president. We had a “handshake contract” and I formally joined the organisation in February 1975. I wasn’t well received when I first joined the organisation…
Because nobody at the organisation wanted Havelange as president. He had beaten Sir Stanley Rous at the 1974 elections. Rous was seen as a monument in Fifa and the so-called defender of the beautiful game, as they say in Great Britain, especially in England. This was a big surprise for everyone. When I entered Fifa, they knew that I had an agreement with the president.
At that time, Dr Helmut Käser was the secretary-general. He said to me, in a very private discussion, “let’s speak as officers” [as both were in the reserve of the Swiss Army] and he advised that I should not accept the position [as development officer of Fifa] because Havelange – he did not refer to him as the president – will not last more than one term, if at all.
I told him “No,” that I had an agreement with the president and I was going to join the organisation. I had no office when I joined, because at the old [Fifa] House, the secretary-general was living there and the secretariat was also in the same building. There were 11 people working in the secretariat at that time.
I was considered an intruder. They were not warm to me, because I was seen as interrupting their way of working, which was simply to organise the World Cup every four years and the Olympic tournament, which was mainly the duty of the International Olympic Committee. There were no development programmes and no youth competitions. The secretary-general told me such things were not needed in Fifa.
They had an itinerant employee, Dettmar Cramer, who was a former coach and German player, who worked at Fifa from time to time, so I was told that they didn’t need any football development people. And since Uefa organised a youth competition, I was told there was also no need for Fifa to organise one.
There was no money, no sponsors, for all the programmes that Havelange had in mind. So, he told me, “Blatter, go and look for sponsors.” This was a difficult assignment and you had to be lucky too.
Havelange and some of the people around him had talked to the major Swiss businesses at that time – the watch companies, chocolate makers, pharmaceutical companies, banks and insurance companies. They all said no. They don’t know what is Fifa or football, they told us.
I met the Guinness organisation before the Uefa Champions Cup final between Leeds United and Bayern Munich. I went with a sponsorship proposal to them and they told me ,“Sir, this is not for us. But you should try Coca-Cola, as their officials accompanied the Leeds team.” I did that and they showed immediate interest, inviting me to London a few days later. We started a discussion and in October 1975, I was in Atlanta, at the headquarters of Coca-Cola.
At the meeting, one of the officials said: “I’ve listened to all you’ve said. So, how many bottles of Coca-Cola are you going to sell for me?” I told him that I am not going to sell a bottle of Coca-Cola. But I like Coca-Cola… We continued our negotiations and finally signed a contract, in 1976, for the sponsorship of our youth competitions and development programmes.
It was not easy to conclude the four-year deal that Coca-Cola wanted, because some members of the Fifa executive committee said the length of the contract would exceed the presidential mandate of Havelange [his first term was to end in 1978]. And since there was no guarantee that he would be re-elected, it was not right to sign it… But there was a member of the executive, from Africa, who intervened and said, “We have no money at Fifa and there is a company that is offering us money and yet, we refuse it?”
His intervention changed the direction of the discussion and once Coca-Cola was in, it was easier to get other sponsors.
Our first development programme was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1976, working with Mr Tessema2, then president of CAF [the Confederation of African Football]. Some were sceptical, saying that Europeans were not needed in African football… Mr Tessema then called me aside and advised me that I must not be professorial in my approach.
Things went on and after Helmut Käser was removed in 1981, I became secretary-general and in 1998, I became the presidenOn assuming office in 1998, we were US$26m in the red. But when I left Fifa in 2015, we had US$1.4bn in the reserves and about US$1bn in cash.
The decision to select two World Cup hosts [for 2018 and 2022] on 2 December 2010, after a successful World Cup in South Africa, played a decisive role in the future of Fifa and in my personal situation.
How has life been for you, since you no longer have the daily schedule of a Fifa president, from the day you were suspended in 2015 up till now?
(Laughs.) First, I have to come back to this decision I have just talked about, because everything changed when President Sarkozy [of France] had a meeting with the Crown Prince of Qatar, after which he invited Michel Platini for a discussion.
After this meeting, Platini phoned me immediately and told me: “President, our consensus [to have Russia and the United States as the respective hosts of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup] will not work.” I asked him if he had been forced to change his mind. Platini said no. “But if your head of state asks you [to do something], you have to say yes,” he told me.
As a result of Platini’s decision, there were problems, because four other [executive committee] votes were going to go to Qatar. I was surprised and it was not possible to get them to change their minds on that. Had Platini and the four votes that were supposed to be a part of the consensus kept to the plan, the 2022 World Cup would have gone to the United States, with a 12-10 vote.
This was not the case and this started something, with 27 May 2015 being the highlight, when US Justice, supported by Swiss Justice and the Swiss Federal Police, arrested people in this five-star hotel [the Baur au Lac] in Zurich.
When I heard of what had happened, it was as if the roof of a big house had fallen on my head, really... I could not understand why the Swiss authorities accepted to do this in Zurich, in cooperation with the Americans, at the moment when the Fifa Congress was in Switzerland and a Swiss was the president and a candidate for re-election.
This matter really marked my life… It touched my energy, my fighting spirit, because I never imagined that something like this could happen.
During our next executive committee meeting, in September 2015, in Zurich, at the end of that committee [meeting], the secretary-general [Markus Kattner] told me that there were some policemen who were waiting to take away two executive committee members. I told him that they had done enough now. And then he told me that the two people to be taken away from the building were Michel Platini and myself.
We were both escorted into a room by the police and we were wondering what the problem was. After a while, they separated us.
Later on, I was told that a criminal case had been opened against me because of the two million Swiss Francs payment [purportedly of a delayed salary] to Platini. Since this case was opened in September 2015, I have never heard anything about this case. It is still pending.
When the Fifa Ethics Committee took up this matter, they ruled that the payment was not a case of bribery but one of bad management because the payment was not governed by a written contract.
I thought that we could have convinced the ethics committee that it was nothing. I was surprised when I was suspended in October 2015. I left my office the same day, without taking my personal belongings. I had not even opened my safe to take my passport. I said to my people: “Let’s have a drink and I will be back in a few days.” But I never came back.
What have I been doing since then and in the meantime?
I had difficulties digesting the entire matter. I had, on 1 November 2015, a complete breakdown, at the cemetery, when we went for a Catholic ceremony. I recovered and I had to change my life.
I wake up every morning at 6am and I get to my office at 8am. I listen to the news in the morning, from around the world. Geopolitics has always been something I am interested in and the role that sport has in it.
I am more in Zurich than in my home region of Valais. I am well accepted by different groups here. I have a good social life. My last relationship, which lasted 10 years, ended three months ago. She lives in Geneva and I am here. I understand, as she is quite young. So, for the time being I am single. But I am not sad. I have had problems with my back and had surgery for my knees but these are for sports injuries. I have recovered but the sciatic nerve is crushed between the fifth and sixth vertebrae and once I finish talking with you, I am off to the doctor, so they can take a decision on what to do. I’d rather not have any surgical intervention, if possible.
I am quite contented with my life. I am still fighting for my rights with Fifa. I have been shown no respect by the new president of Fifa. He does not speak to me and refuses to respond to any correspondence, preferring to speak through lawyers. He should have the courage to speak with me directly.
I don’t want to go into a lot of details, but there is something that happened lately, at the beginning of February. There was a parcel in my mailbox that was brought by a Fifa courier, definitely, and I opened it and there was correspondence addressed to me, as far back as October and November 2019, inviting me somewhere and sending me Christmas wishes. But they only sent it to me now. This shows the disrespect of this organisation towards its former president.
I have started to write. I published a book, Mission and Passion, but unfortunately it is only in German.
Why is this book not published in English?
My second book, which came out in 2016, Ma vérité [My Truth] was supposed to have been translated into English by a very important publisher in France. They were supposed to translate it into German, Italian, Russian, Spanish and Chinese. Something happened and all of a sudden they lost interest in publishing this book in other languages. They never explained the reason why.
I don’t know if there was any interference by any political interests, because one of the chapters of this book explained, in detail, the intervention of the French president [Sarkozy in the World Cup 2022 bid]. French justice is currently investigating the former president and Platini. They asked me to testify in March [regarding allegations that both men may have made a personal financial profit from supporting the Qatari bid] and I agreed to do that, as long as I could do it from Switzerland, as they did two years ago, when they sent some investigators, a committee rogatoire, as they say in France, to ask me some questions.
I am sad that my book was not published in English. The English media were most unfair to me. When they speak about me, it always begins with the words “The disgraced…”
I still have one year of my suspension to go, but I was never banned for bribery. It was for “bad management”. This is silly. For this, I am still under the pressure of Swiss justice.
I am hoping this case will develop now, since the Swiss attorney-general has been sanctioned and the case, all Fifa cases, have been taken out of his hands. [In March, the supervisory authority of the Swiss Federal Prosecutor’s Office concluded an investigation of Michael Lauber’s handling of the case and stated his “violations of duty are serious… On several occasions he did not speak the truth, acted in a disloyal manner, violated the code of conduct of the federal prosecutor’s office and obstructed the investigation.”]
I want to take you back to 2011, when you were elected, at the Hallenstadion in Zurich, to your penultimate presidential term. Before that election, we had a conversation and I remember asking you if there were things you had done wrong, which you needed to admit to. Your answer was whether I was a Catholic priest to whom you should make a confession. Now, in 2020, do you have a different answer than the one you gave me in 2011?
I would not say that anything has changed, regarding what happened in 2011. What I do regret is all that has happened after the World Cup in 2014. My heart and soul is at peace with God. At the end of a Fifa executive committee meeting [in Morocco], Michel Platini said he would not seek the presidency and some committee members then called on me to continue.
I have to interject here, because I recall our conversation in 2012, in London, during the Olympics, at the Mayfair Hotel on Park Lane. I asked you, specifically, whether your term starting in 2011 would be your very last as Fifa president. Your answer was that you were not even sure if you would complete your term and you might want to leave before it ended. So, when you decided to go for yet another term in 2015, I was very surprised. I felt you made a very big mistake the moment you did this…
Whether it was a big mistake or not, one cannot turn back the wheels of history. Did I really tell you that? I don’t want to put your recollection into question.
It was also my intention not to stand. But in December 2014, Platini said he would not stand.
Later on, we know there was an exchange of letters between an American law firm [Quinn Emmanuel] and the Fifa administration in January 2015, in which they told the administration that in case of difficulties between Fifa and American authorities, they were at our disposal. They went ahead to outline their hourly fees. It was addressed to the legal counsel of Fifa, Marco Villiger.
A deal was signed with the American firm, by Jérôme Valcke [then Fifa’s secretary-general] and his assistant Markus Kattner and it was countersigned by the lawyer [Villiger], who stated that I had agreed to this contract. But I never saw this contract, until much later.
But how is that possible?
Because they did not inform me. My thoughts were that at that time they knew the Americans were doing something [against Fifa]. And perhaps, and I say perhaps, Platini already knew something about this.
Although he had already said that he is not going [for the Fifa presidency], I remember his statement, after the May 2015 arrests in Zurich. He suggested to me, and to some other key officials of some confederations, that we should postpone the elections. And we told him that the elections must take place.
Later on, my brother told me, while the elections were going ahead, that Platini told him: “Tell your brother that he should not seek re-election or he will go out [of football] in handcuffs.”
It is possible that inside Fifa, there was a plan for another candidate. What happened [regarding the Quinn Emmanuel affair] was a breach of trust and confidence within Fifa. Things should not be done this way. Some members of the Fifa administration had contacted one or two members of the Fifa executive committee and proposed Valcke as a presidential candidate.
Valcke has now been charged with criminal offences by Swiss justice. But I remember when Fifa had to pay Mastercard $90m in damages, over the breach of a sponsorship contract you had with them, when you ditched them and opted to partner with Visa, their business rivals. Jérôme was at the centre of that controversy. How could he have returned to Fifa, becoming secretary-general, after the mismanagement of a sponsorship deal that caused Fifa to lose a huge amount of money?
Jérôme was the man who was in charge of the file but he was not secretary-general at that time [he was director of TV and marketing]. There was a poor appreciation of the situation by our Finance Committee, on the decision to change this partner.
Was it a mistake to have changed the sponsor?
Looking back? Yes. It was an error to have done that.
What do you think of Valcke’s present travails? You appointed him as secretary-general…
I am not a judge. He has not been found guilty of anything criminal yet. The only sanction he has received is from the Fifa Ethics Committee. Concerning the television contracts that were signed [which form a part of the criminal allegations by Swiss justice] these were never done without the approval of the executive committee as well as the finance committee. I defended his use of a private plane and his renting of a private apartment instead of a hotel in Rio [as he managed preparations for the 2014 World Cup] in Brazil. These are internal matters of Fifa.
After you were re-elected in 2015, you got a new salary deal of $3m per year and you got a $12m bonus for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. That’s an enormous amount of money for one person. What do you have to say to people who believe that’s an exorbitant amount of money for the Fifa president to earn?
Regarding my pay, there was a special committee of Fifa, made up of people not involved in the daily affairs of Fifa, which took a decision, after looking at the business success of Fifa. A bonus was declared, but I have never seen this bonus.
Having been the only person who has been secretary-general and president, were you able to maintain your sense of normalcy, of reality? When you hold these positions and you wield a lot of power, you often forget that you’re a human being, like everyone else…
As a president, I had a problem with all my secretary-generals. It is my fault that I had a problem with them, because when I became the president of Fifa, I was chief executive at the same time. It was difficult for them to have been consistent as I have been [when he was secretary-general for 17 years].
They did not have the authority that you had when you held that position.
No. They did not have the personal education that I had [having served in various Fifa roles for six years before becoming secretary-general in 1981]. To be the secretary-general of a staff that grew from 11 to 450 people, with a billion-dollar annual turnover, you must have someone who knows the business of the organisation.
If, after your re-election in 2011, you had taken the firm decision to focus on proper reforms in Fifa and clean up the huge mess that had brought Fifa into disrepute, the 2015 election, without you, could have been a proper, open contest. Things could have been very different today. Gianni Infantino is a Fifa president of circumstance, because had Platini not been suspended, he would not be there now.
Well, all this is part of history. One should have regrets. But history, life, is not like a match where you can always prepare, or a show, for which you have a rehearsal before. In history, you cannot have a rehearsal. When you ask me this question, yes, it would have been good to do these things. But I cannot change it, because everything happened in real time.
When I meditate on things, I know that I was absolutely wrong [to have sought another term in 2015]. My daughter and my lady told me not to do it.
They gave you good advice.
They did give me very good advice. But I still did it and I later realised that I must have been a fool, really, because when, in 2015, I was re-elected for four more years, I was already 79 years old.
This is exactly the reason why I didn’t understand why you did it.
I do not understand as well. I did not realise, at that time, that I was affected by what affects every human being in the world – age. You cannot stop age. But I never thought I was ageing.
You really didn’t think so?
No. And you know why? It was because I was working with young people, from 1975 to 2015, for the development of football. I did not realise and no one told me, including my lady, that I was ageing.
They probably didn’t tell you because they knew that you would not accept such remarks.
No. I would have said why didn’t they insist? But my daughter, Corinne, told me this: “Daddy, I know you. Your head is stronger than the highest mountain…”
There you go. She does know you.
She knows me very well. To be 79 years old and to be a candidate for four more years, I should have told myself, “Are you a silly man?” I realise this now, when I go back. But one cannot stop the reality of life. I am now at peace with myself and this is what is most important.
Your relationship with Issa Hayatou, the former president of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) was not so easy. You were two strong characters with differing opinions about the game. He was firm in his control of African football. But we see a different situation for African football, where Fifa had to directly intervene in the daily affairs of CAF. This has never happened in Fifa history. What do you think of this?
You’re right. Issa Hayatou was the son of a Sultan. He was a prince, but he was also a boss. He was a chief. He had a very strong personality and used, not abused, his personality to bring people together. Even if they were not always happy with him, he was the leader. If he had still been the president of CAF, in no way would Fifa have had the courage to intervene in a confederation. What Fifa has done is unconstitutional; it is against the statutes of Fifa because the confederations are not members of Fifa. They are only recognised. Fifa can intervene in the matters of a national association, which is its member, but never in the affairs of a confederation.
I had a conversation with the former president of the Football Association of Tanzania, Leodegar Tenga, on this matter and he shared my opinion. But I do not know whether he raised his voice enough in Africa, on this matter. I asked him how African football can accept this interference. And, more than that, Fifa has a committee for compliance, which is to ensure that they respect the regulations of the organisation. This committee should have made an intervention. If they didn’t, then African national associations should have intervened.
But the relevant Fifa committees are no longer independent because they rely directly on the president. So, they don’t intervene when the president has taken a [wrong] decision.
If you want to help a confederation, you should not send the number two of Fifa, the secretary-general, to the headquarters of the confederation to do the job. You should send someone who really knows African football and not somebody who came into football but doesn’t really know football…
I am unhappy that at the last Fifa elective congress in Paris the president was elected by applause. This is wrong. He has to be elected by secret ballot, even as a sole candidate, as was my case in 2011. This is the law of Fifa. He was not re-elected into office. He was applauded into office. It’s unconstitutional but no one says anything.
When is the last time that you spoke to Mr Hayatou?
It was the last time he was here [in Zurich], November 2016. He came, with his wife, to visit me in the hospital.
My colleague, Tariq Panja of the New York Times, wrote about the collection of watches that you left at Fifa House in 2015 that you didn’t get back. What is the situation now? Have you got them back?
No. But one day it will be settled. It is a shame that watches which belong to me are still with Fifa. I left Fifa in 2015 but they only brought some of my belongings at the end of 2019.
Four years? But when you leave an office, you are allowed to take your personal belongings. Or someone should have brought them.
But when I was suspended, I was sure that I would be back the next day.
I have this statement of yours: “I want to die in dignity and I want people to say I was not a thief in Fifa.” Do you think that will happen?
I am not a thief. I want to leave this world known as the man who brought football to the level it is at internationally. And that I helped make football a socio-cultural product. I want the world to acknowledge that I deserved a better departure from Fifa. That I gave to Fifa, rather than took from it. Fifa gave me a wonderful time. It gave me the opportunity to meet the rich, the poor, the politicians and celebrities. I have been received all over the world, thanks to football. They didn’t receive me just because I was Sepp Blatter.
How many people in football still call you now?
In Europe it’s a bit difficult. [Ángel María] Villar Llona and [Michel] D’Hooghe still stay in touch and I have no contact with Platini, although he has been saying that I am a good man now.
You don’t believe him?
Well, he needs my support for his case. [Laughs.] I also have contact with Lydia Nsekera [of Burundi, the Fifa Council and IOC member]. I keep contact with [the Fifa Council member] Omari Constant, Sheikh Salman [the Asian Football Confederation president] and South Africa FA president Danny Jordaan. Oh… I also have good contact with the Uefa Presidency.
How long did it take you to accept that you were not coming back to Fifa, as its president?
[Pauses and exhales] I had difficulties to accept this, because when I was suspended, I thought that I was coming back the next day. I am still in expectation to go back to Fifa.
At least to be officially received back at Fifa.
That matters to you?
Sure. It’s the respect that should be shown by an institution to a former president, as I also showed to the president that came before me.