FIFA: A Tale of Two Leaders

America has suddenly become very interested in soccer.  NY Times FIFA Cartoon

In a sweeping 47-count indictment released on May 27th, the US Justice Department accused a number of top FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association) officials of bribery, racketeering, money laundering and fraud of over $150 million. Seems like a small amount of chicanery for an organization that took in over $5 billion in revenue across four years from the “beautiful game.” The charges are, of course, only related to activities that took place in the US or involve monies in American banks, so it’s easy to extrapolate that the true breadth of corruption at FIFA is breathtakingly large.

I’m not a soccer fan, sorry, I meant football fan for my German friends who love the game. I did get into the World Cup last year, first cheering on the scrappy US team and then pulling for Germany to win the big prize. But I know enough about the sport to know that corruption at FIFA is well known and long-standing. Watching FIFA spokesman Walter de Gregorio struggle in a press conference after the cinematic arrest of seven top officials at the Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich was like watching Mike McLintock, the out-of-his-depth spokesman on HBO’s Veep, manage to answer a question containing anything of depth; simultaneously painful and amusing. De Gregorio’s performance showcases how insulated the organization has been for so long. It took the US Attorney General to make them stumble over themselves so thoroughly.

The indictment serves up a fantastic contrast in leadership. On one side is the 79 year old, four term head of FIFA, Swiss born Joseph S. (“Sepp”) Blatter. On the other side is 56 year old, newly appointed US Attorney General, North Carolina born Loretta E. Lynch. Their backgrounds, and leadership styles, could not be more different.

Blatter spent the beginning of his professional life in various PR-related roles, first for local Swiss tourism and then for the Longines watch company. He also became involved in sports during this time, working for the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation and the 1972 and 1976 Olympics. He joined FIFA in 1975 and was elected to his first term as President in 1998. Even at the start of his tenure as president, there was controversy ranging from backroom dealings to bribery.

In addition to the corruption that has followed his FIFA presidency for years is his essentially unopposed power. Countries who want to gain a foothold in the sport fear him – and apparently openly court him with cash. And as for his willingness to be a modern ambassador for the sport, well, here are a few samples of Blatter quotes to give you a sense of his tone-deaf leadership style:

  • Regarding how to reverse the low turnout for women’s soccer: “Let women play in tighter shorts.”
  • Advice on how to handle charges of racism between players: “On-field racism can be resolved with a handshake.”
  • Concern over 2022 World Cup host Qatar’s anti-homosexual stance: “Gay fans in Qatar should refrain from sex.”
  • Reaction to the recent US indictments: “No one is going to tell me that it was a simple coincidence, this American attack two days before the elections of Fifa….You can’t just ask people to behave ethically just like that.”

US Attorney General Loretta Lynch, in contrast, grew up African American in the segregated South, the daughter of a librarian and Baptist minister in Greensboro, North Carolina. A double graduate of Harvard (BA and Law Degree), she moved from private practice to the Eastern District of the US Attorney’s office in 1990. One of her most notable cases was the brutal beating and torturing of immigrant Abner Louima, a case she successfully prosecuted, a turning point in the national discussion over racism and policing.

After about a month into her new job as the country’s top law enforcement official, she presses a case with global impact, one having implications across the heart of a sport supported by very wealthy and powerful denizens. All this after moving quickly to announce an investigation into the Baltimore Police Department right after the controversial death of Freddie Gray in early May. Such actions are familiar ground for Lynch, having extensive experience prosecuting cases involving terrorism, civil rights, organized crime and voting rights.

Those who have worked with her note that she barely raises her temper, focusing instead on the work and not her personal benefit. According to President Obama, in announcing her nomination for Attorney General, “Loretta might be the only lawyer in America who battles mobsters and drug lords and terrorists and still has the reputation for being a charming ‘people person.’” In other words, she’s tough, hard-working and refreshingly human.

Her quotes, unlike Blatter’s, speak to a focus on fairness, equity and concern for others:

  • “A license to practice law is not a license to violate it.”
  • “Those who willfully conceal assets overseas undermine the playing field for all taxpayers.”
  • “We will bring to justice those who plot to attack the United States of America.”

One leader approaches his role as a means for personal enrichment and power. The other views her role as a sacred trust. One leader does not fully grasp the impact his actions, and misdeeds, have on countless people. The other leader respects the power she is given and uses it to further something far bigger than herself. In the playbook on how to be a good leader, the choice is obvious.

Lynch – 100 points; Blatter – Zero.

One Comment

  1. Wendy Rinella June 5, 2015 Reply

    My takeaway on a Blatter
    President of everybody is a short term job.

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