Showdown at Sonnenberg

Suspended FIFA president Joseph Blatter wants to take legal action against his successor (Gianni Infantino) and football’s international governing body. What’s at stake? Honour and millions of dollars – with a dash of a human drama, for good measure.

Joseph “Sepp” Blatter drops a veritable bombshell. “I’m going to take legal action against Gianni Infantino and FIFA,” he tells Weltwoche. “I’ve had enough. This is the limit.” In the history of FIFA, a former president has never taken his successor to court. Two alpha males from the Vallais region are at the helm of a body that’s arguably the world’s most powerful federation – and they are locked in a titanic struggle that’s just been kicked up a notch.

The drama began in Shakespearean style on 25 September 2015. Led by its plucky boss Michael Lauber (known informally as the “crusher”), the Swiss Attorney General’s Office pounced after FIFA’s Executive Committee had gathered for a meeting. They led Blatter into a separate room at FIFA’s headquarters in Zurich, and stated that they were opening proceedings against him. This action was taken as a result of a retrospective salary payment of 2 million Swiss Francs that FIFA had transferred to Michel Platini. The UEFA president and former international football player had been Blatter’s assistant at FIFA from 1998 to 2002. Blatter emphasises that everything was done by the book: “FIFA’s financial bodies looked at this amount and found it to be correct, and the FIFA Congress accepted the invoice in May 2011.” Shortly after proceedings were opened, however, a scandal erupted: FIFA’s Ethics Commission suspended Blatter, along with Platini, who was also a member of FIFA’s Executive Committee. The reason? Not corruption or the exploitation of advantages – but poor management. Blatter won’t stand for this reproach, either. He says that the salary agreed with Platini was appropriate for a global superstar. He also points out his economic successes. When he became President of FIFA (which is governed by private law) in 1998, the federation was in the red. By 2015, it had a reserve of 1.4 billion dollars, and had access to 1 billion dollars in cash.

“The information put about by FIFA is divorced from reality, and defamatory.”

The Swiss Attorney General’s Office picks the wrong side

For Blatter, the Platini situation was handled in line with all FIFA’s rules. That’s why questions arose, he says. In a memo, he puts it this way: “How can it be that a case handled by FIFA in 2011 ends up at the Attorney General’s Office in 2015? This can only be the result of denunciation: according to Swiss law, only a member of an association (FIFA) can demand that its general assembly (FIFA Congress) be held to account for a decision they have made – and that has not happened in this instance.” However, he expects that the Attorney General’s Office will ultimately close the case. In fact, the Attorney General’s Office has been investigating Blatter for more than three and a half years, and is yet to reach a conclusion. Since 25 September 2015, Blatter has not been questioned further by the Attorney General’s Office, although he has already been called as a witness several times, providing information regarding other pending proceedings involving FIFA. As a result, the pressure on Lauber as Attorney General has stepped up a gear. There’s also been a game-changing development: recently, it came to light that Lauber met with Infantino in secret on three occasions, off the record.

The parties involved denied that one of these meetings had even taken place, until Swiss Special Prosecutor Damian K. Graf provided the evidence that it had happened. The natural assumption would be that Lauber and Infantino talked about the FIFA/Blatter affair at this ominous meeting in Bern on 16 June 2017 (“Komplott gegen Blatter?”, Weltwoche no. 18/19). In any case, the former FIFA President can hardly imagine “that they didn’t talk about me”. The outcome of the preliminary investigation is also of crucial importance to Blatter: the decision made by FIFA’s Ethics Committee to suspend him was based solely on the fact that the Attorney General’s Office had opened proceedings against him. If Blatter were exonerated in law, he would be in a position to challenge this suspension. He says that it is obvious who would benefit from this suspension: his successor, Infantino.

These connections are one of the reasons why he is now going on the attack, explains Blatter. Various memos and letters seen by Weltwoche reveal exactly what is going on in the dispute between the former and current Presidents of FIFA.

FIFA’s “false report” of alleged enrichment

Following his election as FIFA President in February 2016, Infantino promised Blatter that he would swiftly clear up the unresolved issues between the federation and its long-standing President. “Give me a list of the points that need dealing with, and I’ll get back to it after the congress in Mexico City on 12 May,” Infantino said, according to Blatter’s memorandum. But nothing happened for nearly three years, Blatter reports. As a result, on 30 January 2019, Blatter wrote a letter to Infantino in which he reminded him about the promise he made in 2016, and the issues that needed dealing with. The most important of these was the “moral damage” he suffered as a result of FIFA’s actions. Specifically, this was about official statements made by the federation regarding alleged payments to Blatter. “The information and the various communiqués put about by FIFA concerning my income are divorced from reality, and consequently, are defamatory,” wrote Blatter. “Even worse, this information was linked to income from other people, which led the facts of the matter being falsely represented.”

Some background regarding this serious allegation: on 3 June 2016, FIFA published a list of “major payments” made to top executives Blatter, Jérôme Valcke (Secretary General) and Markus Kattner (Director of Finance). One of the allegations regarding Blatter suggested that he had received a “performance-based bonus” of 12 million Swiss Francs in 2015, “in the event of a successful four-year mandate”. This ended with the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, which was highly successful from the organisers’ point of view.

“I still cannot understand how my successor is running roughshod over me.”

“It is false to claim that I received this bonus,” says Blatter. However, he alleges that he is not interested in the money. Instead, he is concerned about the damage to his reputation caused by FIFA’s “false report”, as he puts it. Through these and other reports, FIFA had deliberately created the appearance that the three top-tier executives had each enriched the others. Blatter states that this does not correspond to the situation at hand and is tantamount to defamation. He says that he had asked Infantino to clarify the facts, publicly – albeit in vain. Blatter also sees the loss of prestige he suffered as embodied in terms of the (negative) international media coverage which cited FIFA’s memo. Media outlets from the New York Times, to Le Monde and the NZZ (“FIFA-Spitze um Sepp Blatter soll sich bereichert haben”) ran with the story.

Pension statements that don’t add up

A bit of background: FIFA created a special pension fund for members of its Executive Committee. Blatter, 83, says that he did not receive anything from this fund, unlike other former members of the Executive Committee. Since he has held an executive position since 1998, he was “fully entitled” to the pension, as he wrote to Infantino in his letter dated 30 January 2019. “This is a fundamental right which has nothing to do with my personal situation, the suspension by the Ethics Committee.”

Personal belongings

In October 2015, Blatter had to vacate his post at a moment’s notice. As a result, he wasn’t able to take his personal belongings with him, he explains. He wrote to Infantino: “After 41 years of loyal service at FIFA, I certainly have the right to all my personal belongings, which are still held in FIFA’s archive. They include strictly personal documents, souvenirs and my famous watch collection.” In his view, these objects are “personal, by definition”. The fact that FIFA has kept them for years is “unacceptable”, he states. For Blatter, his extensive collection of “haute horlogerie” watches is of particular material and sentimental value: he previously worked as a manager in the Swiss watch industry, and built up his collection over a period of many years. Blatter says that it comprises about eighty pieces, by brands as famous as Ulysse Nardin, Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Breitling, IWC, Jaeger LeCoultre, Chopard, Cartier, Louis Erard and Baume & Mercier.

In addition to these three main issues, Blatter has some other scores to settle. For example, he is still waiting for his salary for 2015/16. FIFA was also responsible for forwarding any post addressed to him onto his private address, but the few letters that he did receive were substantially delayed. This is a paltry matter, but it needs to be mentioned, regardless. Blatter believes that the examples show how FIFA’s treatment of him has ranged from disrespect to something verging on bullying. In addition, in May 2015, the Finance Committee made the decision to transfer 200,000 Swiss Francs to the Sepp Blatter Foundation for charitable purposes. This money has allegedly never been transferred.

Even the letter to Infantino dated 30 January 2019 saw Blatter threaten to take “legal action” if these contentious issues were not resolved as promised. He then gave Infantino until the end of February to do this, which finally seemed to get the ball rolling. Secretary General Fatma Samoura worked to resolve the differences, acting as a direct go-between for her former and new bosses at FIFA. On 5 March, Blatter’s personal belongings were finally returned. However, his valuable “haute horlogerie” watches were missing. As a result, Blatter wrote to Infantino again on 25 March, asking him to send over the watches and provide his opinion on the “other unresolved issues” by the end of March. However, Infantino never replied – and still hasn’t, to the present day. Now is the time to kick-start the legal action he threatened, in Blatter’s eyes. Blatter is being represented by one of Switzerland’s best defence lawyers. Experts commenting on the case believe that the civil claims (such as those regarding the payment of the outstanding pension, the return of the watches and possibly the infringement of personality rights) are particularly likely to succeed in court.

“Amitiés! Gianni”

In addition to the legal side of things, the drama in FIFA’s upper echelons also has a human dimension. “I still cannot understand how my successor is running roughshod over me after he was able to take over a highly profitable enterprise,” Blatter says to Weltwoche. Infantino has even disappointed him on a personal level. As recently as 10 March 2016, when the new President had just taken up his post, he congratulated Blatter “with my whole heart” on the occasion of his 80th birthday. Using Blatter’s stationery – marked on the top left with the sender written in French as “Le Président” – Infantino praised his predecessor for the mark that he, Blatter, had left on the “world of sport”. He assured him of deep feelings of respect (“sentiments les plus profonds et regardueux”) and signed the letter by hand with “Amitiés! Gianni”. Blatter is mystified as to why this respect and this friendship should suddenly disappear – after all, these are values that FIFA allegedly stands by. It may be that Infantino sees his predecessor as a toxic legacy, and wants nothing more to do with him. Now, they will probably see each other again in court. In front of the judge, Blatter would have less to lose than Infantino and FIFA. They could end up in a precarious position – provided that Blatter manages to hit the back of the net.

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