Sepp Blatter elected to fifth term as FIFA president
Zurich — In the end, nothing could stop Sepp Blatter.
Not a far-reaching corruption scandal. Not a tarnished international image. Not a young prince who gave him a stronger-than-expected challenge.
Despite the biggest crisis in FIFA's 111-year history, Blatter emerged victorious once again Friday, winning re-election as president of world soccer's governing body for a fifth term and proving he is the sport's ultimate survivor.
"I am now the president of everybody," the 79-year-old Blatter crowed after defeating Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan to secure another four years in office as one of the most powerful men in sports.
Blatter was declared the victor after Prince Ali withdrew following the first round of secret balloting among FIFA's 209 member federations. Blatter won the first ballot 133-73, seven votes short of the two-thirds majority required for victory.
Before the start of the second round, where a simple majority would be enough for victory, the 39-year-old prince conceded defeat. By preventing Blatter from securing an outright first-round triumph, Prince Ali gave Blatter a symbolic bloody nose and showed that his previous iron grip on the organization has weakened.
"I want to thank all of you who were brave enough to support me," Prince Ali told the delegates.
With FIFA in turmoil amid a pair of U.S. and Swiss corruption investigations, Blatter had remained defiant and refused to step down — as demanded by European soccer's governing body, UEFA.
The result of the one-vote-per-country election proved that Blatter retains the loyalty of the many smaller countries in Africa and Asia, a bloc that is enough to counter his critics in Europe and elsewhere.
"I like you. I like my job," Blatter said to the assembly after receiving a mix of cheers and jeers as he stepped to the stage for his victory speech. "I am not perfect, nobody is perfect, but we will do a good job together I am sure."
Then he exhorted the delegates: "Together we go! Let's go FIFA! Let's go FIFA!"
The election took place two days after seven soccer officials were arrested in dawn raids at a luxury Zurich hotel. The U.S. Justice Department indicted 14 people on charges of bribery, racketeering, money-laundering and other charges. In a separate investigation, Swiss authorities are looking into FIFA's awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 tournament to Qatar. And Britain's Serious Fraud Office said Friday it is assessing "material in its possession" relating to allegations of FIFA corruption.
Blatter himself was not implicated in the U.S. indictments, but prosecutors have said the investigations are far from over.
FIFA's big-money sponsors have also called for change within FIFA. Visa warned it could pull out of its contract, which is worth at least $25 million a year through 2022.
Blatter, who has been in office for 17 years, portrayed himself as the man who can guide FIFA through the tumult and restore trust in an organization that has been left battered and reeling from years of corruption accusations.
"I have been made responsible for this storm," he said in his final speech to the voters before the election. "That's fine, that's fine. I take that responsibility. I take it. I take it upon myself and I also want to accept this responsibility, get back on the path, to fix FIFA, together with you."
The election went ahead after U.S. and Swiss federal investigations struck at the heart of Blatter's circle. Two FIFA vice presidents and a recently elected executive committee member were still in custody Friday as the votes were counted.
"I thank you that you accepted me for the next four years," Blatter told the assembly. "I will be in command of this boat called FIFA and we will bring it back off shore and bring it back to the beach."
He cited God and Allah in his speech, saying they would help guide FIFA out of its crisis.
"I promise you, in the end of my term I will give this FIFA to my successor in a very, very strong position, a robust FIFA and a good FIFA," he said.
Blatter won despite direct calls for his resignation from UEFA president Michel Platini, who sat still during the congress and did not clap during the victory remarks.
"I am proud that UEFA has defended and supported a movement for change at FIFA, change which in my opinion is crucial if this organization is to regain its credibility," Platini said.
UEFA is scheduled to hold meetings next week in Berlin ahead of the Champions League final. Platini said before the vote that UEFA could pull out of FIFA and withdraw from the World Cup if Blatter was re-elected.
In what appeared to be a warning to UEFA, Blatter pledged Friday to change the representation of his influential executive committee, where Europe currently has eight of 25 voting members. Blatter also said he would retain a 32-team World Cup and resist expanding what is FIFA's cash cow.
England Football Association chairman Greg Dyke, who voted for Prince Ali, said Europe's opposition to Blatter would not wane.
"This isn't over by any means," he said. "The events of this week are so traumatic for FIFA that I cannot see FIFA reforming itself under Blatter — he's had (17) years to reform it and he hasn't done it."
Sunil Gulati, president of the U.S. soccer federation and a member of FIFA's executive committee, also voted against Blatter.
"While we are disappointed in the result of the election, we will continue to push for meaningful change within FIFA," he said. "Our goal is for governance of FIFA that is responsible, accountable, transparent and focused solely on the best interests of the game."
Blatter did have one big ally in Europe — Russia, the site of the next World Cup.
"Russia staunchly supported Blatter," Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko told The Associated Press, "so we are very satisfied with a result like this."