(BLOOMBERG) - The man who presides over international football, Fifa president Joseph "Sepp" Blatter, finds himself running an organisation buffeted by repeated allegations of corruption as he seeks re-election once again.
US prosecutors today charged 14 football officials and sports marketing executives with racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracies. Four others pleaded guilty to charges that include receiving bribes and kickbacks relating to previous elections and the selection of World Cup host countries. Blatter, 79, was not among those charged.
Fifa's 209 national member associations are gathering in Zurich for Friday's presidential election, held every four years. Blatter is running against Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan after two other candidates quit last week.
Both the election and the 2018 World Cup in Russia and 2022 edition in Qatar will go ahead as planned, the organisation said. Blatter is "relaxed" because the Swiss probe into wrongdoing at the football federation was something it instigated itself, Fifa spokesman Walter De Gregorio told reporters at the House of Football in the hills above Zurich.
"This is not good in terms of image or reputation but in terms of cleaning up everything we did over the past four years, this is good," De Gregorio said.
Election Odds Blatter remains the favorite to win the election, though the odds were moved by William Hill to 1/16 from 1/20. Prince Ali's odds have been trimmed to 7-1 from 8/1.
"Today is a sad day for football," Prince Ali, a member of Fifa's executive committee since 2011, said in an e-mailed statement. He declined to comment further on the arrests.
Blatter deserves support for helping develop the game and for building training centers, said Manuel Burga, president of the Peruvian Football Federation from 2002 until 2014.
"These next four years, he's going to finish and put the crown on all the work he's done before," Burga said in an interview at the Zurich hotel where many Fifa delegates were staying. "Mr. Blatter has been working correctly. When somebody wins and somebody loses ... nobody is going to be happy always."
Swiss authorities also seized data from Fifa's headquarters today as part of a criminal probe into the 2010 vote that delivered the next two World Cups to Russia and Qatar.
Blatter's efforts to expand football across the globe beyond its historic roots in Europe is one of the reasons the Maldives supports his re-election, Shaweed Mohamed, president of the Maldives Football Association and an executive member of the Asian Football Confederation, said today in Zurich.
"I think we've had it enough in Europe, otherwise there's no use in calling it the World Cup," he said.
In December 2010, Qatar, a scorching-hot desert state with no football tradition, secured the rights to stage the 2022 World Cup. The US$5 billion month-long jamboree holds the sporting world's attention twice as long as the Olympics.
"The leadership that he established was such that it promoted self-aggrandisement, self-promotion and money grabbing of individuals within the executive committee of Fifa," Michael Hershman, the co-founder of Transparency International, said earlier this year. Fifa enlisted Hershman to join a panel convened to give advice on reforms, then ignored most of its suggestions.
A year after Qatar's selection, Blatter secured his fourth term as president when his only challenger, a Qatari billionaire, was forced out of the race after being denounced for offering to bribe Caribbean voters. By then, even usually steadfast sponsors such as Coca-Cola and Adidas - companies that had enjoyed four decades of unbroken ties with Fifa - spoke out. Blatter was bruised, though he refused to bow out.
"Crisis? What is a crisis?" a stern-faced Blatter said at a news conference where he clashed with reporters. "We are not in a crisis. We are only in some difficulties, and these difficulties will be solved inside our family."
The next day, to thunderous applause from the majority of the Fifa membership, Blatter told the world that he'd stay on for one more term, long enough to lead his organisation into an era of transparent management.
Blatter's opponents, including European football head Michel Platini, say the president is unable to let go because Fifa - an organisation Blatter joined 40 years ago - is his life.
"He is simply scared of the future because he has given his life to the institution to the point where he now identifies himself fully with Fifa," Platini told French sports daily newspaper L'Equipe in a recent interview. "I understand the fear of that emptiness he must have - it's natural - but if he really loves Fifa, he should have put its interests ahead of his own."
Blatter has perfected the art of understanding his constituency. No matter what outsiders wanted, the only voices that counted were Fifa's 209 nations and their votes; to ensure loyalty, he lavished attention and Fifa money on members from poor nations and tiny islands.
His power over the group showed in recent months, when his opponents were barred from addressing the membership of football's regional groups in South America, Africa, Asia and Central and North America.
The son of a chemical-plant worker, Blatter was born in Visp, a Swiss town of about 7,000 inhabitants in a valley below the Matterhorn. An ability to triumph over adversity is central to Blatter's self-portrait; he frequently tells the story of his premature birth.
"My grandmother advised my mother to let me go," he told a group of students at Oxford University. "But my grandmother was to underestimate my mother and me. I am a fighter and my mother was too. She did not give in. And I learned, like my mother, that you should never give up on what you believe in. I was given that chance at life. And I like to think I have grasped it with both hands."