Visp, Switzerland: His reputation may be deeply tarnished in the world of football, and beyond. A widening swirl of corruption allegations points to deep rot in the organisation he has run. And after 17 years atop one of sport’s most powerful groups, his downfall was a shattering crash heard the globe over.
But do not tell that to the 7,000 residents of Visp, his hometown. Amid a shadow of disappointment, perhaps, they are still inclined to see his story more as a version of Horatio Alger than Humpty Dumpty.
To them, Sepp Blatter — the long-time president of Fifa, football’s world governing body — remains the boy next door who fulfilled Switzerland’s version of the American dream, climbing to the top of global sports while never losing sight of his roots.
Here, few have bad words for Blatter. His name is on the facade of a local primary school. He keeps an apartment here. And he has used his influence to lure international football stars to a town whose prominence, Blatter aside, amounts to being a train link to the resort of Zermatt, home to the Matterhorn.
“Whenever I’ve met Sepp here, I’ve had to remind myself that this ageing and easygoing man, who just seems to want to talk to friends in his cafe and enjoy his wine, has in fact also been in one of the most important and stressful jobs in the world of sports,” said Bernhard Summermatter, a local architect, who was having a drink of his own on Thursday evening at the Napoleon cafe.
Nevertheless, Blatter’s downfall has prompted soul searching in Switzerland. It has added an untimely stain to the national blotter, as the country’s banks have faced litigation and international criticism over secrecy rules and allegations of facilitating tax evasion by the global elite.
Blatter has not been charged and has denied any wrongdoing in relation to the bribery investigation of Fifa led by the US Department of Justice, alongside the Swiss judiciary. In announcing his resignation, Blatter, 79, said he would step down after Fifa elected his successor, a vote that is expected to happen late this year or early next year.
Those interviewed here said Blatter has a right to be presumed innocent, and that a US push to root out fraud within Fifa should not eclipse his successes, like extending football’s marketing clout and global footprint.
“We’re all surprised and saddened, not only because he’s given Visp international fame, but also because we really thought that he had soccer and his life under control,” Summermatter said.
When Blatter is not taking a corporate jet to attend football events or to dine with heads of state, he regularly makes the two-hour journey here from Fifa’s headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland’s largest city.
“Visp has of course been home, but also the place to recharge his batteries,” said Hans-Peter Berchtold, head of the sports section of Walliser Bote, a regional newspaper.
The town has a chemical plant, where Blatter’s father worked. Blatter has an apartment in the heart of Visp, just a short walk from the Napoleon cafe, which is owned by his daughter and son-in-law.
“He’s a friendly and quiet person, but of course also a figurehead for us, both on a personal and professional level,” said Blatter’s son-in-law, Dominik Andenmatten.
After Blatter’s fourth election as Fifa president in 2011, he chose to celebrate his success in Visp.
Last August, Blatter skipped the final of a women’s tournament in Canada to attend the centenary of FC Visp, his local club. As part of that anniversary celebration, Fifa helped organise a match in Visp’s tiny stadium that featured stars like Ronaldo, Brazil’s leading World Cup scorer, and George Weah, a former Fifa world Player of the Year. “That Ronaldo should come to play in a town like Visp was just unbelievable,” said Berchtold, the journalist.
Growing up in Visp, Blatter was a competitive 100-metre sprinter and footballer, though he never became a professional athlete. Still, he displayed enough “teenage cunning” to pretend to the coach of the Visp team that he was comfortable shooting with his left foot, according to an article published in Fifa’s magazine last year. The magazine quoted Blatter later explaining that “as a 14-year-old, it was the only chance I had to make it into the under-18 side.”
After dabbling in sports journalism, Blatter started in sports management in 1964 by becoming secretary-general of the Swiss ice hockey federation — a popular sport in Switzerland, but not one that Blatter played.
In the early 1970s, Blatter worked for the watchmaker Longines, in a department that handled time-keeping for the Olympics. He moved to Fifa in 1975, as a technical director. Blatter was also a colonel in the Swiss army.
As head of Fifa, Blatter was “clearly a very important and international figure for Switzerland,” said Roland Rino Buechel, a member of the Swiss Parliament.
Blatter should use his remaining time in office to “at least remove all the corrupt people from Fifa,” Buechel said. “If he’s got a few months left, he should use that to improve his own reputation, that of Fifa and also that of Switzerland.”
Charles Poncet, a lawyer in Geneva, said that “in terms of image, a Swiss as the president of a corrupt organisation is like discovering an American was the head of the Ndrangheta”, an Italian criminal organisation.
“He was clearly somebody who knew how to play up a simple and clean image, that of the son of a factory worker and the nice Swiss guy from the mountains,” Poncet said.
But the lessons of small town life can perhaps only be employed so far. “When you have an entity that has almost a monopoly on TV and advertising rights that are worth billions,” Poncet said of Fifa, “it can’t be organised as if that was still the soccer club of Visp.”
— New York Times News Service