“I would like to quote Confucius, ‘If you have been a horse, you must not become a donkey’.”
Sepp Blatter picks up his napkin, covers his mouth and clears his throat.
“What is greater than FIFA?” he asks.
“President of the United States? The United Nations? No. FIFA is the greatest.”
His sleeves are rolled up as he reaches over the table, grabs a piece of bread and breaks it in two.
Did you hear that their Vice President, Mike Pence, just hired the same law firm that I once did? I met a few of their representatives the other week. If Pence becomes president, my path into the White House is clear. That will be my next job!
I can hear my constrained laughter, but am unable to stop it.
Sepp pours himself some more wine and returns his napkin to his lap.
Zürich is over 30°C. My decision to wear tweed is starting to feel like one of the dumbest I have made in a long time, but neither the dripping sweat nor anything else can distract me from what is going on at the other end of the table.
In my head, I am trying to digest the various impressions from my recent hour-long interview with him. But it is hard to stay focused while he sits there, the face of football’s corruption, 81 years old, suspended from the organisation he headed up for 17 years, accused of most things, investigated by the Swiss authorities and the FBI, shamed in the eyes of world football, in a FIFA-owned restaurant, looking down on his beautiful home town.
He leans over the table towards me.
“Can you name the original six teams of the NHL? I can.”
27 May 2015. Game over.
Swiss police forces, armed with a search warrant from the FBI, raid the luxurious Baur Au Lac hotel in central Zürich and arrest seven members of FIFA’s executive committee. Throughout Sepp Blatter’s 17-year reign, suspicions and accusations of bribery and corruption had been ever-present, but as things start to fall apart, the President seems to avoid the destiny that awaits many of his colleagues.
When I meet him, more than a year and a half has passed since he left FIFA. A few days after the raid at Baur au Lac, Blatter resigned from his post as president, and then in October that year, he was given an eight-year suspension (which has since been shortened) by FIFA’s Ethics Committee after they launched an investigation into a dubious payment made by Blatter to the then president of UEFA, Michel Platini.
The pressure took its toll. In November 2015, Blatter suffered what he described as a “nervous breakdown” and was admitted to hospital. Today, he is believed to be under investigation by both the FBI and the national authorities. In the week following our meeting, FIFA’s previously classified ‘Garcia report’, which investigated the decisions to award the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar respectively, was made available to the public and points the finger at Blatter for “presiding over a culture of entitlement” in the governing body of international football.
But as of this beautiful sunny day, he is free and on his way here.
I was expecting a small convoy, but he arrives on foot. Slowly he makes his way, laboriously, slightly hunched, one step at a time, lightly tinted sunglasses and a hint of stubble decorating his face. He drops his mobile phone as he is handing it over to Thomas Renggli, his right-hand man and private press officer.
“This young man’s reflexes, eh?” he jokes as he walks towards me and leaves Thomas to pick it up off the ground.
We meet halfway along a small path that leads up from the carpark to the restaurant. On his way, Sepp waves to the staff at the Sonnenberg restaurant, his “local restaurant”, located at the end of a winding road above Zürich’s old town.
“How’s life?” he asks before I have had the chance to introduce myself.
Behind him is a breathtaking backdrop of the city, with woodland-covered mountains that almost appear to be leaning in towards the city centre, and a crystal clear Lake Zürich that is looking so very inviting in this heat. I take a seat in the corner of a couch, Sepp sits in the one across from me and quickly explains that he prefers my spot, but says it will do for now.
“This is a very important location for me. This is where it all started with the modern FIFA. This restaurant still belongs to FIFA. Or, well, someone else might be the chef now, but you know. To me, this corner where we are seated, is very important,” he says.
I explain to him that I once sat next to him at another restaurant in central Zürich a few years ago, but he quickly points out that this one is much better, and starts unfolding a small piece of paper that has emerged from his pocket.
It is full of facts about Swedish football.
“Allsvenskan,” he says and looks at me with a big smile.
“It’s a perfect name. I like it. If you say it in German, it almost becomes ‘Alles kann’. Man kann alles. You know everything. Everything you need to know.”
I guess you have a lot more spare time now than in previous phases of your life.
“I enjoy life. I can get into my hobbies. You know what my biggest hobby used to be? Becoming a radio reporter. It’s true. I always wanted to do that when I was younger. So who knows, maybe one day. But I know it’s late now. I’m asked to make speeches here and there, and I work on my books. I guess you can say they are my memoirs. I have a very interesting life. I need that. And I’ve had to conduct a few repairs on my body, my bones, my knees in particular. I’m like an old car, from time to time you need an MOT.”
“I don’t know if you read the interview that The Guardian published the other day? It’s about a year old. I said I wanted to go back to Visp, my birthplace, and walk with the goats in the mountains, but that was at a time when I was recovering from the breakdown. Now I’m finished with that. I’m done with the mountains. I’m done with isolation. Now, I want to be where life is,” he says.
Do you feel safe when you go out in Zürich?
“Absolutely. Not only safe. I feel accepted and very popular. Not only in Zürich.”
Are you afraid? Of the FBI or the Swiss authorities or anything else?
“I have never felt threatened, I have never been attacked. Of course, not everyone around here greets me with an ‘abrazo’ (Spanish for hug), but they are polite and ask me how I’m doing. Now, I’m a happy man. I am out of FIFA physically, but mentally I’m still linked with FIFA. I’m helping the Swiss authorities to find out some stuff that concerns a few…international problems. Problems that are coming out now, with these famous World Cups. And also with the installation of the FIFA ethics committee.”
In what capacity are you helping them?
“I am a person with information. I answer because I want the truth to come out.”
So, what are these people mostly concerned about? The World Cups?
“Listen. The decision to award a World Cup is based on political recommendations and political pressure.”
“A year from now, everything will be cleared and clean. For me, that will be the real rehabilitation. Not of my knees, but my soul.”
Every time a question flirts with the idea that Blatter or FIFA could be to blame, that the image of him and the organisation that has established itself around the world might actually be deserved, the answer begins with “Listen.”
“The FIFA Ethics Committee does not bother me. I want to bother them. They should take a close look at the decisions that were made in mine and Platini’s case. They have specifically excluded bribes and corruption from my case. There was no bribery and no corruption. The only thing they say is that I was imprudent, in this particular case.”
You don’t sound supportive of the Ethics Committee.
“My perception is that my own Ethics Committee, the one I introduced in 2011, worked well, with two independent chambers. But the first decision that was made by the new administration of FIFA, at the 2016 congress in Mexico, was to say that the Ethics Committee, control, compliance, the disciplinary committee and the board of appeal should not be under the jurisdiction of the congress, but only the council. When this happens, something is wrong.”
His hands tremble slightly as he reaches for his glass of water.
“It is not up to me to say how my successor, or the administration, is doing their job, but there is definitely reason for the national federations and the members of FIFA to react if they are not satisfied. Anyway, they are not happy inside the house of FIFA, because so many people have been rejected. But, when someone new comes in he has his own ideas. So, I don’t want to comment on that.”
Sepp keeps talking about “the new FIFA” and adds that the Video Assistant Referee system that is currently being tested is “all wrong”. He goes on to criticize Infantino’s proposal for moving to 60-minute matches.
“Leave the game alone!” he exclaims.
Is Infantino a good president for FIFA? Are his reforms good?
“He has surrounded himself with a lot of footballers. But he is the President. That is all I have to say.”
Not whether or not you think he is a good president?
“No, that’s not up to me to decide.”
You can have an opinion.
“No, I don’t have a personal opinion. He has only been there for less than a year.”
Do you read about what is being written and said about you and FIFA?
“Listen. This is a judgement made by the international media after the 27th of May 2015. ‘There is only corruption in FIFA.’ But FIFA is not corrupt. People may be corrupt, but the FIFA organisation cannot be identified in this way. This was the main reason behind my decision to give up my mandate. I had just been re-elected as the President of FIFA. I am sure that by doing that I calmed the American Justice Department down. On the 27th of May 2015, everyone said FIFA is a “Mafioso” organisation. In the aftermath, they have said that FIFA is a victim.”
Who has said that?
“The American Justice Department. You can ask them. They have said it. FIFA is a victim. The members of FIFA who have been arrested or are in trouble with the US authorities are that because of activities within their own confederations, not as members of FIFA. South Americans, North Americans, now someone from Asia. All their activities are connected to their own confederations. So this is not a FIFA-gate. This is a confederation-gate,” Blatter says, forgetting to mention that former US General Attorney Lorretta Lynch, who branded FIFA “the victim of corruption”, added that the organisation’s leaders, the people the President himself surrounded himself with, were regarded as “perpetrators” and “potential culprits”.
Is UEFA less corrupt than the other confederations?
“Haha. Please. They claim to be. I think they are. You see, in football, you try to gain advantages on the field of play, but Europe has access to a different educational background, at least most countries do. But I would not put my fingers in the fire on this issue.”
It has now been about a year and a half since the Ethics Committee suspended you. Have your feelings towards your own role in all of this, your responsibility…
…the fact that you surrounded yourself with people who have been accused, arrested and judged on the basis of bribery and corruption, have they changed?
This is his most adamant plea so far.
I have not been charged. Not for bribery. I cannot be morally responsible for people I have not chosen. Only the president of FIFA is elected by the congress.
Some of the decisions that were made during your time are still very controversial. What is your personal view of Qatar as the host of a World Cup? With heavy criticism being directed towards the lack of human rights and a constantly increasing number of casualties among construction workers. After all, it was your FIFA that chose them.
“Listen. Since the 2nd of December 2010, Qatar has been an ongoing highlight in the international media. It’s even worse now with everything that’s going on. Let us play the World Cup in Russia first, where there are also problems. There are always problems. Only in football! In other sports, this doesn’t seem to be as big a problem. But I guess it’s because football is the people’s sport.”
“But you know, Qatar is a real problem. It always has been. This is also a question that is currently being investigated by at least two different national authorities.”
Joseph S. Blatter was born in 1936 in the Swiss village of Visp, a small community of 6,000 people, right at the foot of the Matterhorn. His family mostly got by on his father’s work at a chemical plant. Sepp himself became interested in sport at an early age. His only daughter, Corinne, still lives in Visp and is married to a local restaurant owner. Sepp goes back there quite a bit and is quick to point out that Gianni Infantino, his successor as President of FIFA, who was born in Brig, another village just a few miles away, has failed to maintain the same close ties with his birthplace.
Blatter first joined FIFA back in 1975. He had graduated from the University of Lausanne with a business degree at 23 and went on to become the general secretary of the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation by the age of 28.
You have been in a very powerful position for a long time. What do you enjoy most about power?
“I have never looked for power.”
“Never. What I have tried to do is get the opportunity to organise and put my ideas into practice. When you are number one it comes with power. Before you have power, you have to do something. Power is the result of your work or your initiatives. When you have completed your projects, you get power.”
“But power can be very dangerous if you abuse it. I ask you to look at Machiavelli’s philosophical teachings. You will see what happens if you abuse power. People are not perfect. If we were perfect, we would not have wars, disasters or things like that. We would just be God’s offspring.”
Do you believe in God?
“I believe. I am a man of faith. If you have faith, you have hope. If you have hope, you go into love. In football it is special. Do you play football?”
“Alright. So when you play, you try to get some advantages. I did it too. You cheat a little bit. You push your opponent. You stick your little leg out. Do you not?”
Well, every now and then, I guess.
“Of course, not always. But sometimes. Football is not perfect. It is a mirror of our society. Our society is not perfect. But football brings people together. It builds bridges. In a football stadium, nobody is above anyone else. There is no difference between a king and a supporter.”
To what degree do you think humanity is driven by greed?
“Haha. Well, you see, human beings aspire. If you go into philosophy again, back to Confucius, Buddha, Jesus or Aristotle. They were all humanists and philosophers. They haven’t written anything down, but they have spoken: And humanity wants to be good. But what does it mean to be good? I have tried. I have tried. In a slogan: ‘For the good of the game’, and ‘For the good of the world’. We also tried to bring in our friends from Oslo, the Nobel Prize organisation, to talk about the ‘Handshake for peace’. Well nowadays it’s more like…”
Sepp does his utmost to imitate a hip hop-inspired high five, but is unhappy with his performance and decides to give it another try.
“But everybody shakes hands in football. Even here in Switzerland, right?”
On my way to Zürich, I reach Lennart Johansson, the Swedish, now 87-year old former UEFA president who stood against Blatter in the 1998 election to become President of FIFA.
Johansson lost after an aggressive campaign, plagued by anger, accusations and personal insults.
“Sepp…,” he sighs.
I see him as this thoroughly intelligent person with great difficulties in telling yours from mine. In every possible way.
"He’s accused of corruption for a reason. It is sad that a man with so many gifts will be remembered as a corrupt man. And FIFA has been hurt by this. It is a sad legacy.”
“If he wants to come to terms with all of this, he can. But it depends on what he wants himself. He’s not unaware of what has gone on, of course not. I would like to tell him: ‘Sepp, it’s really sad what has happened. I know you realise this as well.’”
In Zürich, Sepp’s note has found its way out of his pocket and slipped under the couch he is sitting on.
“When I started my work with FIFA, Tore Brodd was the President of your federation. Then there was…where’s my paper?”
Thomas is more alert this time around and rushes over to pick it up.
“Ah, yes. Lennart, of course, how could I forget? And then Lars-Åke Lagrell and now Karl-Erik Nilsson. You know he used to be a referee? I can only say good things about him and the Swedish Football Association. The win against France the other week, that was quite something, was it not?”
I actually spoke to Lennart Johansson yesterday.
“Really? Lennart is a great man. Not only because of his physical appearance. You know, I liked him. I mean I like him. He’s still alive. But we had a big fight back in 1998, before the elections. Everything was arranged for Lennart to win.”
What do you mean ‘arranged’?
“There was a meeting in Helsinki where all the Europeans had agreed to vote for him. Then, the federations of Africa met and decided to go down the same path. With those two confederations on his side, he would have won easily. And then there was me, and I wanted to stay on as secretary general. But they said no, no, no. They wanted rid of me, and Havelange. But we won.”
Lennart wanted to ask you something.
“For real? What did he want to ask?”
How are you planning to promote the good things that FIFA has achieved, when so much of your legacy is overshadowed by the bad?
“It’s not easy to change the attitude of the international media. They are still in the mood to portray FIFA as corrupt and Sepp Blatter as the leader of all this. But history will show that FIFA was not corrupt. Not the organisation. The good things we have done? All the countries of the world play football. Football is the school of life."
“But Sweden was one of the founding members of FIFA. And they won the Olympics back in 1948. Did you know this?”
Yes. Although, we had an English manager back then. George Raynor.
Unsurprisingly, my contribution to Sepp’s fact file is met with silence.
We have been talking for about 45 minutes, and his answers are increasingly drifting away from my questions. More than anything, Blatter is eager to keep reading from his notes about Swedish football and Sweden. And portray himself.
“But there was this other Swedish coach that went to China? Sven-Göran Eriksson? Yes, that’s right. But I have to tell you something else. It was during the Olympics in Athens, 2004. The match for third place, Sweden against some other country – and your king was there. With the queen…”
Sepp takes a deep breath as he prepares to pronounce her name.
“S-i-l-v-i-a Sommerlath. I went over and talked to them, I knew Silvia from the 1972 Olympics in Munich. It was so interesting because the stadium was almost empty! We could have walked around and shook everyone’s hands for five minutes each. But the royal couple seemed to do just fine. We kept in touch, although now I’ve lost direct contact with them. But this was very interesting.”
How do you view the development of women’s football under your reign?
“I am the architect of women’s football in FIFA. It was after the FIFA congress in Mexico in 1986 that we, or I, launched everything and organised the first ever tournament in China, two years later. You have this wonderful woman who coached the US national team?”
“They won the World Cup and the Olympics.”
“But women just have to be able to play football. In all cultures and all religions. I have seen with my own eyes how women play with or without a scarf over their heads. In some countries, Muslim countries for example, women don’t have the same civil rights as in the Western world. So, football is good for the women. Women want to play team sports as well. What is there to choose from? Basketball, volleyball and handball. Handball is too athletic. Basketball and volleyball? If you aren’t tall, you shouldn’t play. Short, tall, thin and broad: Anyone can play football.”
“In men’s sport it’s different, because the athletes are so big. Like in the Australian national team. I saw them on TV yesterday. They looked like a rugby team. Some of their players were overweight. They need to work out more. They need to run more.”
Sepp laughs and waits for me to join him, but I have no trouble holding back. This is not the first time he has expressed similar views on women.
“Or Ibrahimovic!” he continues.
“I’m a big fan. He plays in my position. But he plays differently. I think he’s 193 centimetres tall. Maybe he didn’t have such a wonderful season at Manchester United now, I don’t think it’s the right club for him. But say ‘hi’ to him from me.”
To what degree do you think Swedish football is corrupt then?
“Sweden is usually at the top of anti-corruption rankings? Sweden is very well known. Sometimes people confuse Sweden with Switzerland. But we don’t have a King. But my biggest compliments to Sweden. And to the Swedish people.”
“And, by the way, Sweden hosted the second ever women’s World Cup in 1995.”
We are done. Sepp and Thomas exchange a few words in Swiss German, the local dialect. Blue flags adorned with the FIFA logo flap about in the wind while Kristofer, my colleague and photographer, and I start packing up and getting ready to leave, somewhat hazy after the past hour’s level of concentration and information overload.
“Can I invite you to join me for a small lunch?”
Sepp is still sitting down as he looks at me inquiringly. I turn my head to Kristofer who appears to be as unable to provide an answer as I am.
“It’s simple. Yes or no,” Sepp adds, eagerly.
We accept his invitation and agree to pay the bill ourselves. Sepp takes the lead, rejects the first two tables on offer and chooses the third. As he proceeds towards it, he starts talking about Gianni Infantino again.
“He doesn’t come to Restaurant Sonnenberg either. He has his own places. And…”
He stops and turns towards me, slowly.
“I am here,” he says with a big, big smile.
And what about Michel Platini?
“He plays golf. I would guess his handicap is about three or four by now. I haven’t seen him for quite some time. Not Infantino either. The last time I reached out to him, his lawyers came back.”
The well-groomed staff, with neatly tucked shirts, circle the table and take us through every last detail of the menu. I try to order three times before our waiter is done. Sepp discusses his choice of wine for a few minutes and sends two bottles back to the kitchen before he is satisfied.
This is when the sleeves are rolled up. He asks me if I have always lived in Sweden. When I tell him I have spent two fairly lengthy stints in Britain, he interrupts:
“Oh. If you would have told me, I would have spoken in my Oxford English rather than my German accent,” he says in an extremely exaggerated accent.
I have seen him pull the exact same stunt in a documentary film.
Royal families are a recurring theme. Sepp tells us about the time he met the former King of Greece when he was with FIFA and addressed him as “Your Highness”, rather than “Your Majesty”, and was put in his place.
“When was Greece a Kingdom?” Thomas asks curiously.
Sepp’s mouth is full of bread. He takes his time and chews it for a while before he answers.
“Until it was not.”
He orders prawns for starters. Then fish. He jokes about having breakfast with Donald Trump “tomorrow”. He namedrops a long list of Swedish celebrities, mostly athletes.
Kristofer, Thomas and I each order an espresso after the meal, and I ask for the bill.
“No, you would be the first to ever pay,” Sepp intervenes as he hands the waiter his credit card.
Our coffees arrive, along with a large bowl of caramel ice cream, which is placed in front of Sepp. He scoops up a large spoonful, and looks at me for a long time as it melts in his mouth.
“You have a Kingdom,” he says.
His eyes drift towards the view. He blinks slowly, as he rests his gaze on the mountains across from us.
“But we have a paradise.”