Ever since Jane Austen died in 1817, we’ve been waiting for someone who could wield irony as masterfully as her to come along. This has been, for the most part, an endeavour much akin to Michel Platini’s efforts at narrowing the ever-increasing wealth gap in European football – that is to say, pretty much hopeless.
That all changed a few days ago, when international football’s shining beacon of exemplary leadership, Sepp Joseph Blatter, stepped up to deliver a performance brimming with sheer irony, at his first press conference since announcing his resignation as President of the Federation Internationale de Football Association.
Before Herr President could announce his ambitious plans for the next few months, however, we were treated to an entertaining opening from Simon Brodkin, a British comedian, prankster, and all-round maverick. Brodkin approached Sepp, declaring himself a representative of a North Korean bid for the 2026 World Cup.
Despite what conspiracy theorists with over-active imaginations might claim – after all, Pyongyang did just very recently complete the construction of a shiny new airport terminal aimed at attracting more foreign visitors – Brodkin’s claim appeared, to all intents and purposes, false.
Still, he went on to firmly place a wad of banknotes on the table in front of our dear FIFA chief as a down-payment in support of this apparently unilateral bid. On another day, and universe, this might well have sealed the deal.
But certainly not here, nor now – before our honest reformist Sepp, such a scandalous, unethical tactic was hardly ever going to succeed; indeed, Herr President appeared distinctly unimpressed – to be fair, it was a relatively small amount of money – and merely beckoned his security staff to take Brodkin away.
At which point, the British performer provided us with a glorious photo opportunity by showering Sepp with more banknotes – an opportunity that, of course, wasn’t passed up by a room filled with journalists and photographers, leaving us with what just might be the defining photo of Herr President’s reign.
Incredibly, this wasn’t the best part of the press conference, for Sepp’s performance – his response to Brodkin’s prompt – had yet to begin.
This he opened with an absolute gem of a line to the gathered media, delivered with a perfectly straight face:
Ladies and gentlemen, we have to clean here first, otherwise I will not be able to speak to you about football.
It is difficult to say with any sort of certainty whatsoever if Herr President was speaking about the money that lay scattered on the floor or FIFA itself.
He went on. With a glance of apparent disdain at the notes, he added:
This has nothing to do with football.
This was undoubtedly the quintessential Austen moment, for the entire scene just passed – loads and loads of cash, flung about with almost reckless, obscene abandon – perfectly encapsulated what professional football is today, with its inflated transfer fees, ridiculously high salaries, mega-TV deals, and ever-increasing match ticket prices. This was exactly what the Financial Fair Play rules have attempted to combat. This, therefore, had everything to do with football.
But Sepp Blatter wasn’t done there. In fact, he was just getting started. Upon his return, after the clean-up, he told us:
I will use my mandate as president in a responsibility and mission to make sure that at the end of February I can say FIFA has started to reform and to rebuild the reputation of FIFA.
Admittedly, this is incredibly noble of Sepp. In a time of uncertainty, he has generously taken it upon himself to clean up FIFA’s reputation as a corrupt organization that has increasingly looked like it has lost its sense of direction and orientation – and if he doesn’t succeed in cleaning it up, he’ll at least set the wheels in motion by the time February comes along.
Lest we forget, though, this entire rebuilding, reformation, refers to a reformation of Herr President’s own legacy at an institution he’s overseen for the last 17 years. In less ironic words, Sepp could just as easily have said: “I will attempt to clean up the mess I have made before finally leaving in February.” But then that would’ve been boring – and worse, entirely honest.
Here, we must be careful not to confuse attempting something with actually doing it. For, if we cast our minds back, we’ll realize we’ve been here before – most notably with the Michael Garcia ethics report-farce that Herr President commissioned; this was a 430-page report that ended up part-redacted, part-summarized, part-condensed into a summary less than 10% of its original length, and eventually disowned by the man who had written the report in the first place.
The entire circus reached its conclusion when Garcia lodged an appeal against the findings from his own report – an appeal that he lost – before he resigned as FIFA’s independent ethics investigator. So whilst it’s with baited breath that we await the reforms Sepp has up his sleeve this time, one could be forgiven for harboring more than a modicum of skepticism.
Blatter also took the chance to reflect upon his resignation, explaining it via a footballing analogy:
I had to do something very special and I did it. In footballing terms I would say I kicked the ball out of the field to stop something, this is what I did.
This ‘something’ ostensibly refers to the FBI’s and U.S Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s ongoing pursuit of criminal charges against FIFA officials and executives – in which case, Sepp would probably be better served not just kicking the ball out of the field but actually running like hell out of the stadium itself.
A quite plausible reaction to all of this might be to wonder if Herr President actually believes everything he’s saying. Which is an entirely valid question, but at the same time a question whose answer isn’t all that important – whether Sepp sees himself as FIFA’s great reformist president is really quite beside the point; what matters is that he’s saying he is.
For, all of this reflection, restating of his noble ideas, reminders of his grand aims and hopes for his last few months in office, points to one thing – in perhaps what appears to be his most audacious move yet, Sepp is attempting to author his own legacy, his own hagiography.
By framing his resignation as an act of grand self-sacrifice, and himself as a harbinger of much-needed restoration, Blatter is looking to portray himself almost as a veritable saint – perhaps merely misunderstood – amidst all the negativity currently swirling around FIFA.
And here, we must not forget the defining characteristic of any portrait – it is posed for; thus, the subject always retains control over what’s represented, and how it’s depicted, in the portrait; and arguably more importantly, what’s left out.
This is precisely what Sepp Blatter is doing – by depicting himself as the President who’s about to bring real change, to clean FIFA up, and to set things right, he’s begun composing his portrait; all whilst simultaneously attempting to efface the less-favourable elements of his 17-year reign; elements that wouldn’t fit into the narrative he’s putting forth; elements that would end up contradicting it; or, as we know it, elements of reality.
Whether he succeeds – as is the case with all attempts at marshalling a narrative, a story, a memory – is entirely dependent on how readily we choose to accept his self-aggrandizing performances – both the one just concluded, and the ones that are bound to come.
Herr President’s attempting to cast himself as a saint; this entire charade of his is the miracle he must perform.