Talisman of the throw | FIFA searches for new moniker to proclaim Blatter’s reign


From top to bottom: (1) Blatter receives honorary degree from Lachezar Dimitrov, rector of the National Sports Academy, Sofia, Bulgaria, 15 Nov 05. (2) Blatter and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi get reacquainted, with UEFA President Lennart Johansson at rear, before the Champions League final, Manchester, England, 28 May 03. (3) Blatter has a go at the Allianz Arena, Munich, 9 Jun 05. (4) Blatter clowns at a press conference, Leipzig, Germany, 7 Dec 05. (AP Photos | Dimitar Deinov, Michael Sohn, Diether Endlicher, and Herbert Knosowski)

Zurich | Suits at FIFA, the governing body for the world game, apparently are a bit miffed at the license being taken with Joseph “Sepp” Blatter‘s honorific. Gliding unopposed into a third term as FIFA president, Blatter has on occasion been heralded in press reports as the FIFA “boss,” “supremo” or, sometimes, “kingpin.”

Fearing that such designations might create bias or a “negative image” among football supporters worldwide, FIFA—in a confidential memo that has been circulating around the Internet over the past couple of weeks—has started gathering opinion within the organization about pre-empting such media shorthand, viewed as disrespectful to the 71-year-old Swiss leader.

The memo, dated Mar 8, contains mainly confederation-generated feedback on several proposals—euphemistically called a “nomenclature revision”—to rechristen FIFA’s head with a more public relations–savvy title. Some of the name changes under consideration during a meeting of the FIFA Executive Committee on Mar 22–23 included “high priest,” “honourable helmsman,” “play-maker supreme” and, somewhat awkwardly, “beautiful man for the beautiful game.” A comment included in the memo suggests that the latter might be shortened to “BmBg.”

Few nongovernmental organizations, and certainly none in sport, carry influence comparable to that of FIFA, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, founded in France in 1904. Famously, the association boasts more members than the United Nations and, in 2001, was nominated to receive the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the game it governs. The organization announced turnover of $1.64 billion during the most recent World Cup cycle, pocketing $144 million in profit.

Naturally, political maneuvering at the upper levels creates an intricate, yet always inscrutable, network of patronage and influence peddling that Blatter has navigated masterfully since gaining the presidency over fierce opposition in 1998. Blatter had to survive accusations of financial mismanagement, the collapse of FIFA’s main marketing partner and the public desertion of the organization’s general secretary to secure reelection at the 2002 World Cup. Now, Blatter in press statements has been reveling in the absence of a challenger when he again seeks the top job at the 57th Ordinary FIFA Congress in May. With a deadline of Apr 1, no challenger has come forward.

Link to PDF file
In the confidential FIFA memo, one comment wonders whether “play-maker supreme” as Blatter’s new title might draw uncomfortable comparison with newly installed UEFA president Michel Platini. “Are we saying that J S is a better footballer than MP [Platini]?”

Blatter—named one of Time‘s top “Builders and Titans” in a 2004 survey—told Reuters in an interview earlier this month, “They didn’t want me in 1998, then they tried to kill me in 2002 and now they bring me the presidency on a platter, so that is also a kind of recognition and satisfaction” (Mark Ledsom, “Blatter Sets Stall for Unchallenged Third Term,” Mar 23). The change in job title, which would take effect following the FIFA Congress, apparently fits in with this consolidation of power. The internal FIFA communication suggests that Blatter and his allies in a magnificent new “zero-emission building” that blends into Swiss forest on Zurich’s FIFA-Strasse have been scrutinizing negative media coverage over time and, in particular, the casual attitude that the world press assumes toward Blatter’s title as “president”:

The Office of the President, having conducted review of media accounts from 01 Jan 06 through 2006 Fifa World Cup™ suggests necessity of change in address, internally and in all external communication, from “Fifa President J S Blatter” to titular nomenclature less subject to media manipulation. Counts of print and web based usage reflect preference for terms of bias or those creating negative image in reader (examples, “supremo,”“honcho,” “boss,”“capo”&c.).

The memo itself does not detail internal FIFA counts of the somewhat derogatory allusions. A simple Google search, however, does yield references to Blatter that might rankle insiders. An Associated Press story following the 2006 World Cup final, for example, carried the lede: “World soccer supremo Sepp Blatter apologized to Italy on Monday for not awarding the team with the World Cup trophy in 2006.” The World Cup Blog wrote recently, in reference to Blatter’s statements on siting the 2018 World Cup, “Every couple of weeks FIFA head honcho Sepp Blatter crawls out of his undisclosed cave to give his thoughts on the world’s game.”

Blatter’s name also has caused trouble, punned upon to embarrassment following some of the FIFA president’s ad-libs. In the wake of Blatter’s 2004 statement that female players might consider “tighter shorts … like they [wear] in volleyball,” headline writers had a frenzy, gleefully transmitting story toppers such as “Blatter-Mouth Sepp Puts His Foot in It” and “Brief Loss of Blatter Control.”

Whether a simple change in referent can alter Blatter’s media-relations woes seems to occasion skepticism even within FIFA’s confidential document. Anonymous commenters fear offending FIFA constituencies with some of the suggested titles. Calling Blatter “soccer sultan,” writes one, risks putting off the England FA by showing preference for the game’s diminutive name; more seriously, one confederation representative asks if Blatter as “high priest of football” might leave out “non-Christians, Jews, Islam &c.? Have we checked with Vatican? Would we say, ‘leader of the Fifa caliphate’?” A proposal that Blatter might be referred to as “roundness in chief” elicits the shocked remark, “Is this for real?”

For Blatter’s entrenched critics, such as those who jumped ship following the management debacles surrounding the 2002 World Cup finals, these additional signals of closed-door posturing over superficialities are likely to prompt additional digs. Within the cottage industry of journalist-critics that has arisen to help make Blatter’s presidency a long exercise in score settling, the latest revelations will sound like business as usual. Andrew Jennings, a reporter who has made investigation of FIFA his life’s work in books such as Foul! The Secret World of FIFA (HarperSport, 2006), leads his website “Transparency in Sport” with regular updates on the organization’s indiscretions. The latest concerns the fallout from FIFA vice-president Jack Warner‘s 2006 World Cup ticket racket.

Even more measured critics such as David Goldblatt, author of The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Football (Viking, 2006), cannot resist blasts at the Blatter regime:

Many things in the world are badly governed. There are many elites who are incompetent, self-serving, self-important and arrogantly blasé about their evident limitations. None of them can begin to compare with the circus masquerading as the global governance of football. Sepp Blatter’s first eight years in power make one nostalgic for the authoritarian certainties, the despicable charm and haughty, patrician discretion of the [João] Havelange years. At the level of everyday management and internal politics, Blatter’s regime has been a disgrace. (745)

Other sources

See the CNN profile online and, for more reaction to FIFA’s “moniker-gate,” see additional pages of commentary by longtime FIFA watchers.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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