Hail to the Thieves

Why FIFA’s Problems are so Intractable

Children play football in front of an abandoned train compartment next to a railway track in Dhaka, May 29, 2014. Andrew Biraj / Reuters

As I finished my tour of FIFA’s stunning new $255 million headquarters close to my home in Zurich, FIFA President Sepp Blatter signed a FIFA-designed soccer ball and said, “Give it to your son as a present from me.” Out came Blatter’s hand, grasping mine firmly, followed by a carefully choreographed pat on the back with all of the warmness one would expect from an uncle. With that, I walked toward the door, where the next guest was already waiting to pay his respects to the man in charge of the world’s most popular sport. This was three years ago, on a sunny spring day, at the pinnacle of Blatter’s power, and a few months prior to the launch of my book about how Switzerland made itself into an economic powerhouse in a hypercompetitive world.

The son of a blue-collar chemical plant worker, Sepp Blatter grew up in Visp, a town of 7,000 inhabitants in a valley below the scenic Matterhorn. A bit like southern Belgium, this part of Switzerland has historically been Catholic, poor, and trapped between larger, unfriendly neighbors. The Wallisers, as residents of the canton are known, were constantly competing with the Italians, Swiss Germans, and the Swiss French. To succeed in a region of desolate circumstances, Wallisers must have endurance, cunning, and an instinct for survival. The former head of the Christian Democratic People’s Party, the strongest party in rural Catholic areas of central Switzerland, put it less constructively to me: “The Wallisers are born with a Mafia gene.”

Sepp Blatter FIFA Corruption
FIFA President Sepp Blatter addresses a news conference after a meeting of the FIFA executive committee in Zurich March 21, 2014. Arnd Wiegmann / Reuters
At 79 years old, Blatter has been elected for the fifth time as president of FIFA. Despite his advanced age, and a 17-year tenure characterized by an unremitting stream of investigations into embezzlement, bribery, and allegations of vote-buying, Blatter, in the final count, got 133 votes to Prince Ali bin al-Hussein’s 73, leading Ali to concede to the incumbent.


Blatter’s rule over FIFA—the world’s governing body for soccer—has

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