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The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world's most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.
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Sepp Blatter, FIFA president. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Sepp Blatter, FIFA president. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

On Monday, Frenchman Jérôme Champagne announced his intentions to run for the FIFA presidency, reversing his previous statements and challenging four-time winner Sepp Blatter, who had planned to run unopposed. For those of you who don't follow the ins and outs of international soccer's governing body, this is surprising news. The last person to run against Blatter, Mohamed bin Hammam, was taken down at the knees by accusations of corruption, information that almost certainly leaked from the presidential camp in Switzerland.

Champagne says he plans to run on a reform platform. An excerpt from his announcement/manifesto:

First and foremost, debating about issues is a normal process in an institution based on democratic principles.

Then, this debate is particularly indispensable for football. We have to take clear and informed decisions on whether we want to continue with the current economic polarization, and the sporting imbalances it brings in its wake, or be willing to rebalance the game in our globalised twenty-first century. Finally, this debate is essential for the future of FIFA, which must face the opportunities and challenges of the globalisation of football.

He is absolutely correct in his statements. FIFA, an organization that has seen nearly half its executive committee resign in disgrace over the past few years, needs massive, institutional reform. John Oliver addressed this brilliantly during a 13-minute segment on his HBO show in July. Blatter and his cronies continue to get richer under the auspices of bringing the game to the wider world—something which, to their credit, they have done. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the planet thinks it's time for a chance at the top.

We seem to have entered a period of time in which the powerful figures in sports are no longer concerned about how their displays of power come across.

Champagne, of course, doesn't have a chance to win. He, like bin Hammam and Michel Platini, the French head of Europe's soccer confederation who didn't even bother running, will fail. His effort is well-intentioned—not a stunt like Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl's attempt in 2011, which did lead to some interesting conclusions about the opaque inner workings of FIFA—but still basically a non-starter. Five of the six confederations have already pledged their support to Blatter, with Europe the only holdout, and one suspects Europe will comply now that its leader, Platini, is no longer considering running. Blatter will get his fifth term and Champagne, if he's lucky, will raise his personal profile and not be destroyed by the process of running against one of the most powerful people in sports.

Nice job, good effort, Mr. Champagne. Now please see yourself out.

We seem to have entered a period of time in which the powerful figures in sports are no longer concerned about how their displays of power come across. Blatter understands he's untouchable, a reality that's a byproduct both of him eliminating his enemies and also the public's collective unwillingness to do much of anything. Sure, we can be outraged, but there's no action behind those words. Football, as we know it, goes on, with Blatter throwing just enough of a bone—video replay, a powerless ethics committee, an unreleased report into the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding—to quell the hottest of the outrage.

We've seen the same thing over the past few weeks in the National Football League. Roger Goodell is incompetent in all facets except for one: making money for the owners. But he has increased the league's revenue immensely during his tenure and ratings are at an all-time high, so he gets to stay. You could make the same case about the last few years of David Stern's tenure as well. These men have always had power, but at least in the past they tried to hide that fact.

As part of his announcement, Champagne called for open debates, similar to those U.S. presidential candidates undertake. It would be fun to watch Blatter and Champagne face off in front of a live audience in some overly decadent room somewhere in the world. One imagines Qatar would host at least one such event, the soccer version of Charlie Rose (Ray Hudson?) could moderate. The duo might bat around ideas, Champagne arguing for reform, Blatter rambling on, his words completely empty. Pundits would discuss what was said, what should’ve been said, and what it all meant.

The answer, of course, would be nothing at all.