Could this, then, finally be it? Could the man who has been deeply embedded for four decades in a culture of cronyism and patronage finally be on his way out of the opulent edifice that houses an organisation he has built in his own image and presided over for 17 years?
As representatives of the Swiss attorney general arrived at Fifa House following an executive committee meeting described by sources as a fairly unremarkable rattle through the agenda, Sepp Blatter was expecting to face the press.
It was a press conference he never managed to host. First it was delayed, then cancelled as the outgoing Fifa president, 79, was interviewed and then placed formally under investigation as his computers were seized. Not for the first time in recent months Fifa’s internal systems went into meltdown. History suggests it is never wise to write off Blatter, the man who over four decades schemed, plotted and horse traded to maintain his grip on the powerful role to which he had become addicted, as much for the manner in which football officials and world leaders would genuflect before him as the luxurious lifestyle it afforded him.
There was that bribe that was proved to have crossed his desk that was meant for João Havelange; the $100m ISL slush fund scandal; the farcical joint bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups that almost invited collusion and corruption; those rumours of brown envelopes under hotel doors that brought him to power; the ever-shifting mix of threats and promises that kept him there.
Through it all Blatter seemed somehow to float above the fray. Even when he finally was forced to agree to step down, days after Fifa had been thrown into crisis by a lengthy, dogged FBI investigation that alleged a “World Cup of fraud” and led to dawn raids in the lobby of the five-star Baur au Lac hotel, he insisted he was going on his own terms and regretted nothing. But now he may have nowhere left to turn.
In Blatter’s deluded world he was going to put in train a reform process that would allow him to step aside in February as the man who put Fifa back on the right path.
But now, with the Swiss attorney general’s staff at his door and officially under criminal investigation over a TV contract agreed with Jack Warner in 2005 that was undervalued by an estimated £11m and a 2m Swiss Francs déloyale (or unfair) payment to the Uefa president, Michel Platini, in 2011, the end is surely nigh.
In his column in the vanity publication Fifa Weekly, which eats up part of the $114m that Fifa spends every year on “communications”, Blatter this week made a prescient intervention.
He insisted Fifa should cooperate with both the ongoing US corruption probe and the parallel Swiss investigation “no matter how close to home those investigations get”. He added: “This is the difficult path we must follow if we are serious about change.” He was not to know just how close to home the investigations were about to become.
The Swiss investigation, overseen by the Swiss attorney general Michael Lauber, began as a probe into the 2018 and 2022 World Cup decisions in May – originally prompted by Fifa itself handing over evidence related to Michael Garcia’s report – but has spread wider, uncovering 121 suspicious bank transactions and leading to seizures of property used to launder money in the French Alps.
When he penned his column Blatter probably had in mind the allegations of black market ticket sales levelled against his secretary general and long-time right-hand man, Jérôme Valcke. The Frenchman, who denied the allegations, is understood to feel Blatter decided to throw him to the wolves once he decided against standing against Platini – also a one-time protege who had turned on the Swiss once he reneged on a promise to stand aside – for the presidency.
In an extraordinary interview with the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant last month Blatter cut a tragic figure, railing in Shakespearean fashion against enemies real and imagined as he bunkered down and insisted he could still prevail.
At one stage he interrupted the interview to point towards a large portrait of himself that he was given as a gift in the dark days following his re-election in May. ‘Football is Sepp Blatter. Sepp Blatter is football,’ the caption reads. If that was ever the case, it may not be for much longer.
If there are parallels with Downfall, the final scene in Reservoir Dogs also springs to mind. The cast of rogues whose names and misdemeanours echo down the years – from Jack Warner to Chuck Blazer, Nicolas Leoz to Mohamed Bin Hammam – have slowly turned on one another in a game of mutually assured destruction.
Blatter’s relationship with Platini, the French former playing star who helped him to the presidency in 1998 against Uefa’s Lennart Johansson and again in 2011 when he faced a potential challenge from Bin Hamman, is as symbiotic and twisted as any other.Blatter once cast himself as a modern Robin Hood collecting the bounty from broadcasters and sponsors for the World Cup and distributing it to football’s poor.
Raymond Dearie, the judge who presided over Blazer’s court case in which he provided information in return for a plea bargain, preferred to described Fifa as a “racketeering influenced corrupt organisation”.
The extent to which Blatter, who learned at the knee of Havelange – now disgraced – and was levered into power by the sportswear magnate Horst Dassler, allowed Fifa’s twisted culture to flourish should never be underestimated. His dwindling band of supporters argue he did his best to play the hand he was dealt, that he was always at the mercy of the confederation heads around his table and forced to compromise at every turn. But in truth he cultivated the weeds until they choked him.
Blatter has often been fond of nautical metaphors, forever insisting he could return Fifa to calmer waters even as the evidence mounted up to the contrary. With Blatter under criminal investigation, Platini facing serious questions, Valcke suspended and a whole panoply of current or former executives either fighting extradition or facing charges it is now a rudderless ship, cast adrift on stormy seas.
If Blatter is to be suspended, next in line to take over as interim president as the most senior vice president, is Issa Hayatou. The veteran head of African football, who recently changed the rules of his own confederation to enable him to go on and on, has a backstory studded with controversy but remains one of the kingmakers in a presidential election that is all of a sudden shrouded in uncertainty. It is hard to think of a better argument for a truly independent, external reform process to short-circuit the ongoing farce.