n 1994, two years before Sepp Blatter took over FIFA, the World Cup was held in the United States, a first. Blatter was instrumental. Until then, only Europe and South America had hosted the Cup. It was time for dramatic geographical expansion, he insisted.
In summer 1998, when I spent several hours chatting with him in Zurich, Blatter spoke with insistence about the importance of the woman’s game, which many of his lieutenants and Asian and African federations, scorned as trivial. He called the future of soccer female. Beginning with the U.S. triumph over China in 1999, top-level female competition soared, pushed above all by revenue from the suddenly nationalistic U.S. This was another quiet but obvious triumph for Blatter.
I am not an apologist. Those who suggest FIFA needs an overhaul and a culture change are often right to say so. But they still ignore that the same culture ushered in remarkable changes to the game.
Troubled by penalty shootouts, Blatter experimented with the so-called “golden goal,” giving the first team to score in overtime the victory. The change didn’t take and penalty shootouts returned, and remain a conundrum to insiders and spectators.
A traditionalist, Blatter’s FIFA was late to consider goal-line replays, but that, too, began changing in recent years. Now, a number of leagues, as well as the World Cup, are considering the introduction of tools that would help verify controversial goals.
But geography remains the name of this game, and its details matter. In 2002, the Cup went to South Korea and Japan, another first, and a boost to Asian soccer. In 2010, once again with Blatter at the controls, it went to South Africa (alleged bribes aside, it was an essential choice, opening the door to Africa and giving the African Cup greater prominence).
Blatter introduced tournaments in the rich emirates, off-season cups intended to generate revenue but also extend soccer’s reach to a part of the world ostracized by gender politics and religion. The much-criticized decision to award Qatar the 2022 Cup, another one rife with bribe allegations, nonetheless again shifted the geographical focus to conform to 21st-century global realities. After nearly a century in such places as Italy, Argentina, Brazil, Germany and England, Blatter’s FIFA finally broke through to places that were previously bowled over by the prestige of Europe and the Americas. No doubt that required considerable wheel-greasing, but the reality remains unchanged.
Critics of Blatter’s FIFA are increasingly eager to make it into an emblem for institutional evil, wallet-padding, and incessant wrongdoing. Mass media, when it works up a froth, is unstoppable – witness American journalist zeal in the run-up to the Iraq invasion, convinced of the weapons of mass destruction argument even when its underpinnings began to crumble. The cases against indicted FIFA officials are unlikely to crumble, and Blatter is headed for a potentially ugly fall.
At the same time, it’s at some level understandable that Blatter’s staff would have given him a nearly hour-long standing ovation when he decided to resign. Not because they’d been paid to do so, or enjoyed being passengers on a sinking ship, but because the Swiss executive, despite the firestorm engulfing him, was a far-sighted pioneer who, while aware of heaps of double-dealing around him, ensured the game became more, not less, inclusive — in terms of where it’s played and who plays it.
It’s easy to find bad guys and jeer them as they trip, stumble and fall. It’s less easy but wiser to avoid Scarlet Letter notions of scorn and pause to note the transformation of a once half-parochial organization into a mighty global one, which has advanced the love its game further than ever before.