ZURICH – Sepp Blatter goes into one of the toughest days of his 40 years at football’s governing body revered by some as the beautiful game’s ‘Jesus’ and scorned by others as a rogue clinging to power.
The 79-year-old, favourite to win a fifth term as president of FIFA in a vote on Friday, has divided the world’s most popular sport as it again struggles to cast off the shadow of scandal.
The Swiss official believes however that his jealous rivals no longer apply the notion of fair play in their backroom battles with him.
“In my 40 years at FIFA I have learned to live with hostility and resentment,” he said recently.
“However as the German language proverb puts it: sympathy is free, but envy must be earned.”
There is a lot to envy.
Being head of FIFA for 17 years has elevated Blatter to 70th place in the Forbes list of the world’s most powerful people â€“ the only sports leader in the group jostling behind the likes of Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama.
The former amateur footballer â€“ an old fashioned striker â€“ joined FIFA in 1975 from a post marketing Swiss watches.
He became secretary general in 1981 and was elected to the top job in 1998 after the man he had served faithfully Brazilian Joao Havelange, no stranger to controversy himself, finally ended his 24 year reign.
Blatter, who also worked as a public relations official for a Swiss tourism department and as general secretary of the Swiss ice hockey federation, claims credit for building up much of FIFA’s financial muscle.
When he joined FIFA it was in a small Zurich building with about 10 staff. One story says that it was Blatter who went to the bank to get a loan when they could not be paid.
But FIFA made about US$5.7 billion (RM20.72 billion) in the four years between the 2010 and 2014 World Cups.
Football’s world body now has 1,400 staff and is sitting on a cash mountain of about US$1.5 billion â€“ about enough to pay the bills if a World Cup had to be called off.
The workaholic Blatter says his main achievement has been to make football “universal” â€“ the first World Cups in Asia (South Korea and Japan in 2002 although the decision was taken before he became president) and Africa (2010) came in his tenure.
Hundreds of millions of dollars are given to national federations and in development grants.
But since the day he took office, accusations of skulduggery have never been far away from FIFA. The latest are over the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar.
Blatter also told UEFA, the European confederation in 2011 that if elected then it would be his last term.
But the FIFA president has never been implicated in wrongdoing and he has always shrugged off controversy â€“ apart from one episode in 2006 when he tried to stop a book on FIFA being published in Switzerland,
And so the football world is divided.
Dominican Republic FA president Osiris Guzman last month took the term flattery to a new level when he compared Blatter to Jesus, Winston Churchill, Moses, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King as the Central and North American confederation (CONCACAF) pledged support to his campaign.
Asia and Africa have also declared strong public support for Blatter against his challenger Prince Ali bin al Hussein, brother of Jordan’s monarch.
But Europe has turned against him. UEFA leader Michel Platini says Blatter lied when he said in 2011 that he would stand down this time.
Platini says Blatter made some good decisions “often in difficult circumstances” but that now he can’t bear to face a life of “emptiness” without FIFA’s power and money.
Blatter, married three times and now helped a lot by his daughter Corinne, says he feels fit enough to go on.
Four years ago, Blatter thought it was his last mandate, he told reporters recently. But “times change”, he added.
Why does he keep getting re-elected?
“He has a way of making people dependent or indebted to him, but not in a way that people regret it,” one Blatter confidant told AFP.
“These people know where they are with Blatter.
“They don’t know where they will be with someone else.” â€“ AFP