ZURICH (Reuters) - Beleaguered FIFA president Sepp Blatter has taken plenty of blows over the last few weeks, but the snub delivered by the Nobel Peace Center may be painful for a man who gives the impression that he wants to be seen as a statesman.
Blatter, immensely proud of being the first FIFA president to take the World Cup to Africa when South Africa hosted the tournament in 2010, has long harbored lofty ambitions about soccer contributing to world peace and social harmony.
He used to refer to the late former South Africa President Nelson Mandela as “my friend Madiba”, the Xhosa clan name by which he was affectionately known, and has spent two years trying to thrash out a truce between the soccer associations of Israel and Palestine.
During a meeting with Pope Francis, he told the pontiff that soccer was about “bringing people together, uniting people, constructing bridges”.
An interview with the Swiss SonntagsZeitung summed up his view that soccer is more than just 22 players kicking a ball around a field.
“Soccer must play a socio-cultural role. We reach 1.6 billion people,” he said. “Thanks to the positive emotions that soccer triggers, FIFA is more influential than any country on Earth and any religion. We move masses. We want to use that to create more peace, justice and health in the world.”
Blatter has toured the world spreading his message, meeting dozens of state presidents, and a visit to Tajikistan last year was fairly typical.
“A meeting with Tajikistan’s President Emomali Rahmon in Dushanbe’s Palace of Nations and a visit to the Super Cup final between FC Ravshan Kulob and FC Istiklol on Tuesday evening kick-started the visit,” said FIFA’s website.
Blatter said: “When I first visited Tajikistan in 2004, the country was recovering from civil war. Nowadays I’m proud to see how soccer has played an important role in bringing hope and education to thousands of Tajiks.”
He has often talked proudly of how Iraq won the Asian championship in 2007 and recently said that soccer was above the brutal conflict in Syria and Iraq.
”Soccer has never been the objective of any attack in this region,“ he said. ”Soccer is respected, it is connecting people and this will be the same with the World Cup.
”I‘m sure soccer is stronger than any other movement and I‘m looking at the geopolitical map today, toward Afghanistan, toward Iraq, toward Syria, toward Palestine, in these countries soccer is played.
“Syria, in such a difficult situation, yet the under 17 team has qualified for the World Cup in Chile this year, this shows what soccer is.”
Even amid the corruption crisis which erupted at the end of May, Blatter was intent on ending the dispute in which Palestine accused Israel of hampering the movement of their players, officials and equipment into the Palestinian territories.
He met Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and was clearly proud after Palestine dropped a motion at the FIFA Congress asking for Israel to be suspended from international soccer.
Instead, FIFA agreed to send observers to monitor the freedom of players and officials to travel to and from the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories
One of Blatter’s favorite initiatives was the so-called Handshake for Peace, developed in cooperation with the Nobel Peace Center.
For three years, Blatter had exhorted those present to share in a handshake at almost every public appearance he has made since the initiative got off the ground in 2012.
FIFA describe the handshake as ”a gesture of friendship and respect intended to inspire the world to unite in peace, solidarity and fair play“ and “part of its mission to build a better future through soccer”.
Yet, on Monday, the NPC, without giving a reason, said it would terminate the agreement “as soon as circumstances allow”.
The announcement came amid an FBI is investigation into bribery and corruption involving FIFA officials, including scrutiny of how FIFA awarded the 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosting rights to Russia and Qatar.
The bitterness was palpable as FIFA reacted and even hit back at the NPC on Tuesday with an unusually strongly-worded statement.
“FIFA is reluctant to accept this unilateral approach on what is a joint initiative between the soccer community and the Nobel Peace Center (NPC),” it said.
“This action does not embody the spirit of fair play especially as it obstructs the promotion of the key values of peace-building and anti-discrimination.”
Editing by Toby Davis