As 2015 draws to a close, The Washington Post reflects on the figures that commanded the spotlight. These are the names that most impacted their sport and the sports world as a whole … for better and for worse.
It was a year no one in soccer will ever forget, thanks to disgraced FIFA President Sepp Blatter. The 79-year-old Swiss national went from declaring himself “the president of everybody” to having “finished … [his] work in football” in a matter of months.
This staggering downfall captivated the world and likely stunned Blatter, who presented himself as — and largely was — untouchable during his 17-year tenure.
FIFA grew tremendously under Blatter’s reign, which began even before he was elected president in 1998. He took credit for helping usher in the first Women’s World Cup in 1991 when he was FIFA’s top administrator serving under Joao Havelange. Since then, he’s declared himself the “godfather” of the women’s game, while simultaneously suggesting female players wear “tighter shorts.”
Blatter also oversaw the growth of the sport in Africa and the Middle East, culminating in bringing the World Cup to South Africa in 2010 and Qatar in 2022. Blatter didn’t care if the decisions were controversial amid allegations of widespread bribery. He brushed off the accusations and instead declared those who questioned FIFA’s motives as participating in “discrimination and racism.”
Blatter’s efforts and expert ability to shift blame were financially beneficial for FIFA, which saw its revenue go from roughly $424 million in 1999 to nearly $2.1 billion in 2014 with no end to the potential growth in sight.
Blatter skillfully used these extra funds to extend his power by increasing the number of FIFA member nations. While working under Havelange, he saw FIFA grow from 137 members to 190 in 1998. Since then, he’s added 19 more to total 209 voting members. It was these newer members — many of them featuring underdeveloped programs that benefit greatly from FIFA funding — that allowed Blatter to fend off his European and American critics to win his fifth term with 133 votes in May — just two days after the U.S. Justice Department broke the biggest scandal in the sport’s history.
But ultimately the Justice Department’s 47-count indictment over an alleged $150 million bribery and corruption scheme that involved dozens of world soccer figures proved too much even for Blatter’s armor.
On June 2, days after proclaiming he was president of everybody, Blatter announced he would resign as soon as FIFA could hold a special election. He spent the rest of the year watching his empire crumble as his associates scrambled to figure out how to fix FIFA, a project that will likely take years.
Blatter and FIFA suddenly found themselves pinned. He and the organization now had to answer for their wrongdoings and the scrutiny from the corruption charges brought renewed focus on other black marks. The human rights controversy over World Cup laborers in Qatar resurfaced in May and FIFA’s treatment of women’s soccer after the 2015 Women’s World Cup was held on artificial turf, a surface many consider inferior and dangerous compared to real grass. Blatter didn’t even attend the Women’s World Cup, the first time the FIFA president was absent from the event.
The bigger blows to Blatter were threats to FIFA’s bottom line.
In the wake of the May 27 indictments, FIFA lost Emirates, Sony, Castrol, Continental and Johnson & Johnson as sponsors. The result is a projected 2015 deficit of around $100 million, PA Sport reports. Later in the year, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s called for Blatter’s head.
Those calls came directly after the Swiss attorney general finally pinned criminal charges to him in October. Blatter was charged with “suspicion of criminal mismanagement and misappropriation” pertaining to a $2 million unlawful payment made to UEFA head Michel Platini. Blatter would once again maintain his innocence, but without a scapegoat this time, he could not escape. With no other choice, FIFA’s ethics committee — a group Blatter created — banned Blatter from soccer for eight years, immediately ending his reign.
FIFA is now left with a gaping hole where its head used to be, which has many questioning when, or even if, the organization can fix itself.
“I personally have some doubts as to whether or not [reforms are possible] without bringing some serious external influence into the play,” corruption expert Jeffrey Thines told CNN in December. “We have to get outside of the FIFA family in order to bring this organization to where it ultimately needs to go.”
That may prove difficult, however. None of the five most-likely replacements for Blatter — Prince Ali bin Al Hussein, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, Jerome Champagne, Gianni Infantino and Tokyo Sexwale — come with a clean slate, as all have previous ties to FIFA. While Blatter may be banished, his legacy may yet endure in 2016.
The Washington Post’s Sports Figures of the Year