As lawyers took control at FIFA, Blatter became increasingly isolated, powerless

Thu Oct 8, 2015 6:35pm EDT
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By Simon Evans and Mark Hosenball

ZURICH (Reuters) - FIFA President Sepp Blatter's loss of control of soccer's world governing body had been evident to staff in its hilltop glass headquarters here well before Thursday's announcement by FIFA's Ethics Committee that he had been suspended.

The Swiss national who has won five successive elections to dominate FIFA for 17 years had become increasingly isolated in the months following the U.S. indictment of 14 soccer officials and sports marketing executives on corruption charges in late May, according to sources with knowledge of the situation. The power had shifted to FIFA's lawyers and some external advisers.

The disclosure on September 25 by the Swiss authorities that Blatter was the subject of criminal proceedings on suspicion of mismanagement and misappropriation was a further big blow, prompting major FIFA sponsors, such as Coca-Cola and McDonald's to call for his immediate departure.

Blatter, who has not been charged and has denied any wrongdoing, was set to step down anyway in February, when a new president is due to be elected. Now, the 90-day suspension means the 79-year-old won't be able to represent FIFA in any capacity during most of the rest of his remaining time, and may well mark the end of the Blatter era. "People have got used to the idea that Blatter is FIFA," said a source within the soccer body. "But the reality now is that Blatter is not FIFA and FIFA is not Blatter."

According to sources familiar with the situation, many important FIFA decisions are now being initiated by its own attorneys, led by head of legal affairs Marco Villiger, who has been in the job for almost nine years. They are being advised by the U.S. law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan.

The legal team has pushed FIFA to cooperate with U.S. and Swiss corruption investigations, tried to calm the concerns of corporate sponsors and supported the efforts of reformers who want permanent change within FIFA, the sources said.

Heading the in-house anti-corruption drive is another Swiss lawyer, Cornel Borbely, who is the chief investigator of FIFA's Ethics Committee. He runs his own law firm and says he resists any pressure from FIFA headquarters.

He is among a small group of reformers who have taken so-called "independent" roles at FIFA in recent years. They also include Domenico Scala, a Swiss businessman who is chairman of its Audit and Compliance Committee and is trying to spearhead reforms of FIFA's structure and rules.   Continued...

FIFA President Sepp Blatter arrives for a news conference aside of the so-called "Sepp Blatter tournament" in Blatter's home-town Ulrichen, Switzerland, August 22, 2015. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse