On Friday, Sepp Blatter was reelected as the president of FIFA, the world’s governing soccer body, winning an unprecedented fifth term. Four days later, he has resigned the position.
It is unclear precisely what made Blatter change his mind, but it is unlikely that the tepid statements released thus far from FIFA’s corporate sponsors are to thank.
The likeliest candidate for what prompted Blatter’s 180-degree turn was a New York Times report on Monday evening that Jerome Valcke, FIFA’s secretary general and Blatter’s top lieutenant, personally handled the transfer of a $10 million bribery payment central to recent U.S. indictments against several FIFA officials. “The revelation puts the money trail closer to Mr. Blatter, FIFA’s president, than had been previously known,” the Times wrote. (Nonetheless, Valcke has not been charged or indicted.) Prior to this latest report, even among all of the indictments and bad press, Blatter still wanted to serve.
As pressure mounted on FIFA over the past week, almost all of its eight official partners (Visa, Adidas, Coca-Cola, Gazprom, Hyundai, Kia, Budweiser and McDonald’s) put out press statements shunning the organization and calling for change. “Hyundai Motor is extremely concerned about the legal proceedings being taken against FIFA executives and will continue to monitor the situation closely,” said Hyundai. “We… encourage FIFA to continue to establish and follow transparent compliance standards in everything they do,” said Adidas.
But none of them pulled their sponsorship dollars. And now that Blatter has stepped down, it may seem they won’t have to.
A bigger FIFA crisis remains largely unaddressed, however: In Qatar, at construction sites hurriedly preparing for World Cup 2022, migrant workers are dying at alarming rates. An urgent human rights crisis has unfolded, and FIFA’s corporate sponsors, for the most part, haven’t responded or called for anyone to step in. (The sports blog Deadspin ran the pointed headline, “FIFA sponsors double down on endorsement of slavery.”)
Visa did mention Qatar in its first (of two statements) last week. “We continue to be troubled by the reports coming out of Qatar related to the World Cup and migrant worker conditions,” Visa said. “We have expressed our grave concern to FIFA and urge them to take all necessary actions.” The other sponsors that issued statements have focused on the corruption scandal.
FIFA has not taken action. There have been a reported 1,400 worker deaths at Qatar building sites since 2010 (a number that includes some workers not at World Cup sites). The International Trade Union Confederation, in a report called “The Case Against Qatar,” estimates there will be another 4,000 deaths before the Cup arrives in 2022.
In his HBO show Last Week Tonight last Sunday, host John Oliver devoted an entire segment to the FIFA scandal and said sponsors are responsible for demanding that Blatter be removed. “All the arrests in the world are going to change nothing if Blatter is there,” said Oliver. Now he’s not there—but will his successor address the crisis in Qatar?
“The only people with the power to get rid of Sepp Blatter are FIFA’s sponsors,” Oliver said.” He then jokingly promised Adidas that he would wear one of its ugliest sneakers (a shoe designed by Jeremy Scott, part of the Adidas Originals line), McDonald’s that he’d eat its food, and Budweiser that he’d drink a Bud Light Lime, if they could cause Blatter’s ouster.
The news that Blatter is stepping down is a shock to everyone involved in the corruption scandal that has been brewing for decades (24 years, by the U.S. Department of Justice’s count) and reached a boil last week with the arrests of nine FIFA officials in Switzerland. It is a shock to the reporters that have covered the scandal, a shock to soccer fans, and, most likely, a shock to the FIFA delegates, from 209 member associations, who reelected Blatter last week.
In a hasty press conference on Tuesday, he was vague about the reasons for his resignation, merely alluding to signs that FIFA needed new leadership. “FIFA needs a profound restructuring,” he said. “For many years we have called for reforms, but these are not sufficient.” Of his own leadership, he added, “My mandate does not appear to be supported by everybody.”
The next FIFA congress won’t take place until May 2016, but Blatter is calling for an “extraordinary” special election to find his replacement. That could take another four months to assemble; in the meantime Domenico Scala, head of FIFA’s audit and compliance committee, will manage the transition.
FIFA’s sponsors may be resting easy now—change has come to the organization, and many people are rejoicing. But as the heat in Qatar rises in the summer months, the heat on sponsors won’t dissipate until the labor situation is addressed. It’s still on the corporations—those that give FIFA $400 million a year in sponsorship money—to speak up.