If FIFA boss Sepp Blatter is looking to reboot his image, flag-bearer for women’s rights isn’t a good fit.
The opening of the Women’s World Cup was supposed to offer Blatter a chance to sound magnanimous and open-armed. Instead, he came off as a clueless old goat with a medieval world view.
The tone of the day was set by his arrival — in a helicopter. Later, he would moan about the piddling prize money being handed out to the teams here ($6 million [U.S.] versus $420 million at the men’s tournament) and plead poverty.
He was in an ingratiating mood. No wonder. The dogs have finally caught Blatter’s scent. Corruption allegations recently claimed his point man in the Americas, Trinidadian Jack Warner. He’s trying to throw his pursuers off with the favourite tactic of crooked regimes everywhere — the internal investigation. But should it end the same way similar probes have, with a clean bill of health, Blatter will find it more and more difficult to control the powerful agitators in his own ranks.
He is a clever operator, and so chose to head off that narrative with an appeal to gender equality. It might have worked if he’d done his presentation with sock puppets instead of speaking.
He began his remarks by appearing to take personal credit for all advances in the women’s game through his pioneering moves at a 1986 FIFA congress.
“I told them the future of football is feminine,” Blatter said, before confusingly adding, “But I didn’t believe it myself.”
The more Blatter talks, the more he unwittingly reveals. It’s a rhetorical weakness shared by members of the Royal Family, aging revolutionaries and bubble-boy sports executives. They are so used to uncritical praise for saying the stupidest things that their filter for nonsense has atrophied into nothingness.
For instance. Someone lobbed up a softball (or possibly planted) question about Blatter’s niece and her interest in soccer. This resulted in a long disquisition that detoured dangerously into politics and those places where women must “struggle” to play football.
“There is a challenge in those places. Not marching in the streets,” Blatter said, trying to appear seigniorial. “Not in the well organized European cultures. But elsewhere.”
“Elsewhere” sounds like code for “Iran”, where FIFA recently submarined the national women’s team’s chances of advancing to next summer’s Olympic Games for the sin of wearing head scarves on the pitch. That was a brave blow for inclusiveness.
It gets better.
On one of his meanders about female athletes, he came up with this gem: “Reaching a certain age, women in our society have duties other than football. I’m not going to go into details.”
At the other end of the head table, the chin of Tatjana Haenni, FIFA’s head of women’s competitions, was in danger of piercing her chest.
Emboldened and in a groove, he switched from German to a variety of English that suggests he learned the language from the liner notes of Deep Purple albums.
He foolishly chose to engage the subject of the German U-20 team’s Playboy spread and his own boneheaded 2004 suggestion that “tighter shorts” would boost the women’s game.
“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 explained. Haenni slowly leaned forward and stared a hole in him.
Blatter was happily oblivious, though he did appear thrown when the tournament’s German frontwoman, former player Steffi Jones, promised “to do everything I can to keep the president from being booed (on Sunday).”
He didn’t like the sound of that. His aides grew increasingly cranky as journalists began probing around the edges of the corruption scandal. When one writer asked directly about bribes, the moderator cheerily cut him off with, “Thank you very much. The press conference is over.”
Blatter jumped off the stage, grinning madly while shaking hands with the vassals permitted within arm’s reach. In his looking-glass world, this was another bravura performance.