Most everyone has at least one, the awkward relative who during a festive dinner, perhaps a little over-refreshed, can be counted on to say the wrong thing at the wrong time and make everyone cringe.
In soccer, that is Josef “Sepp” Blatter, the kingpin of the sport’s corrupt governing body FIFA, playing the wacky uncle even while apparently dead sober.
Blatter dropped in on the eve of the Women’s WorldCup – and yes, as will be explained, it really was just a drop in – to participate in the official opening press conference, opine on the state of the game, on the issue of gender equality, and to do his best to duck any questions about the ongoing revelations of dirty dealings under his watch.
That last part wasn’t going to be easy. From the very first question, it was clear that some of the journalists in attendance had precious little interest in the tournament that begins on Sunday, and were hoping that this rare public forum would present an opportunity to pin Blatter down on the issue of payoffs, and bagmen, and the perhaps-rigged bidding for the 2018 and 2022 men’s World Cups.
That wasn’t going to happen, though, not with FIFA’s rather severe media relations manager Segolene Valentin running the show, and not with Steffi Jones, the head of the Women’s World Cup organizing committee, riding shotgun.
Valentin did her best to cut off any questions related to FIFA corruption, and Jones’ took care of another one that attempted to address the same subject via a circuitous route: Did Blatter expect to be booed by the crowd at the Olympiastadion because of the FIFA scandal?
“I will take that,” Jones said, grabbing the microphone, and talking about what perfect hosts she expected the German fans to be.
“I will do what I can to keep the president from being booed tomorrow,” she said, not explaining exactly how that might be accomplished. (But if she can pull it off, maybe Gary Bettman ought to hire her.)
That left Blatter to expound on other subjects, most notably the place of women in the world game. For a man who once suggested that women’s soccer might have more general appeal if the players wore tighter shorts, there was an obvious minefield there, but Blatter soldiered on, suggesting that in countries in which women do not enjoy full and equal rights, participation in football could act as an agent for change.
“I would not say it is a fight or a struggle but it is an opportunity for women to gain the same rights as men,” Blatter said.
So far so good. But then he continued, talking about the challenge of keeping girls in the game once they hit “a certain age.”
“Reaching a certain age women in our society have duties other than football,” he said. “I’m not going to go into details.”
And what about those tight shorts?
“Let a woman play their game and let them play in the most attractive manner when they use their personal and genetic qualities which are the elegance and dancing,” Blatter said. “And then we will have a wonderful World Cup. It’s not so important what and how they are dressed.”
Blatter was then asked, in light of his paeans to the importance of women’s football, how much of the tournament he planned to attend.
“I have the first match tomorrow,” he said. “And there is also TV.” There is the Gold Cup final coming up, he explained, and there is an Olympic conference in South Africa, and come the end of July, there’s the men’s Under 20 World Cup in Colombia. “As you can see my calendar is pretty heavy, but I will certainly be here for the semi final and final. That is all I can offer. You cannot split me in half.”
And then one last question from the floor – this time directed to the chairman of FIFA’s women’s football committee, Morawi Makudi of Thailand, who has also been implicated in the FIFA scandal: Had he ever accepted a bribe?
Before he or the president could say a word, his trusty media relations officer jumped in.
“Thank you very much,” Valentin said. “The press conference is over.”
Blatter was cornered briefly afterwards, where he said that the FIFA ethics committee would issue its report on the corruption allegations before the end of July, and where he reiterated that former FIFA vice-president Jack Warner – who is a key figure in just about every bribery story – will not be investigated further because he has resigned the post.