Can Blatter escape?

CAN Sepp Blatter escape? When the smoke clears in Seoul in May at the FIFA Presidential elections, will he be confirmed in office? On the face of it, he should have little hope. The very fact that he is under such withering fire from so many quarters, is in itself ominous and indicative. His Teflon predecessor, the ineffable Joao Havelange, stayed in office for 24 dire years, brushing off any and every accusation, just like Juan Samaranch as President of the Olympic body. Havelange knew, like the first ever Prime Minister of Britain, Sir Robert Walpole, that every man has his price, and he paid it abundantly. Not least when it came to winning the 1974 Presidential election in Frankfurt at the expense of the admirable Sir Stanley Rous.

Abundant chapter and verse on Havelange's finaglings may be found in that devastating book by David Yallop, How They Sold The Game. Now a formidable investigative journalist Andrew Jennings, who exposed the appalling corruption of the Olympic movement, has done the same to Blatter. Exposed how huge sums of money changed hands to ensure that he would win the FIFA Presidential election in 1998 although it looked cut and dried for the Swedish President of UEFA, Lennart Johansson.

Blatter, who won't even disclose the amount of his colossal salary - Havelange didn't take one though he made money in many ways - and he fought bitterly against the proposal to set up a committee to look into FIFA's finances, which were known to be in a dreadful state. So much so that it was believed that to get out of trouble. Blatter had been using money set aside for the ensuing 2006 World Cup. Alas for Sepp, there were enough good men on the relevant committee to set up another one, under that honest Scottish lawyer David Will, to probe the position. They must deliver their report by April 30.

Blustering and protesting, Blatter insists that no committee can be as relevant as the full FIFA Congress and the depressing fact is that he may be right. As we saw when some months ago he was under fire in Buenos Aires but got away with it on the votes of countries which had benefited from FIFA's largesse, and were no doubt eager to get their snouts in the trough again. The unfortunate fact being that every member country has one vote, so that the bigger nations can be swamped by countries where football is negligible.

A particular initiative which has been condemned by Blatter's critics, and one whose true object is quite plainly just to win him support, is the so called Goal Project which seems little more than means of throwing large sums of ill spent money to buy votes. And how much money have FIFA lost as the result of the collapse of ISL?

Blatter, a close friend of its chief executive, insisted on continuing to deal with the company over World Cup rights when it was known to be on the brink of bankruptcy. Yet IMG, Mark McCormack's company, was ready and eager to step into the breach. The consequence was that ISL went to the wall with losses of some &pound280 million; allegedly resulting in a concomitant loss to FIFA of &pound220 million. Yet Blatter insists that the loss was no more than &pound22 million. If he is so sure of his figures, and his subsequent assertion that such huge losses are mathematically impossible, then whey did he fight so bitterly against the setting up of a genuinely independent investigating committee?

The high probability now is that Blatter will be challenged in Seoul either by the highly experienced African representative, Issa Hayatou or by the immensely rich South Korean, Chung Mong-Joon. Havelange of course used to stroll home every four years shamefully unopposed by the array of greedy sycophants. He still asserts that he will prevail and perhaps against all the odds, all morality and logic, he might. But even if he has his way over the deeply suspect nature of his own election, on the grounds that courts - one of them in Milan? - have ruled that it be accepted, even if he still exhibits no shame, the challenge seems pretty sure to be made. To the detriment of the fat cat positions of such as the Trinidadian Ian Jack Warner, the most powerful figure in the CONCACAF Federation who has benefited so strangely from TV rights.

He appeared to have lost those World Cup privileges to a rival, one Mr. Brown, when ISL went bust, and Warner got the rights back. He hasn't been so bullish and happy of late. Does he feel the ground giving way under his feet? And what of the likes of Riccardo Texeira, son-in-law of Havelange, top dog of the Brazilian Confederation, now under investigation of corruption by the Government and so loyal a Blatter man?

Things fall apart. People are talking. Blatter is furious with the FIFA general secretary, Michel Zen-Ruffinen, to whom he confidently turned insisting that the executive committee had no right to demand an international audit committee which could enlist outside help. Zen-Ruffinen told Sepp that he was wrong. The committee was duly established.

It's said that FIFA have bled another fortune setting up an international organisation to replace that of ISL. Some of the most damning testimony has come from a Somalian, Farra Addo, who has publicly stated that he was offered $100,000 to vote for Blatter against Johansson in the 1998 Presidential elections. A lot of the money seems to have come from the Middle East. In particular, from the Qatar executive member, Mohammed Bin Hammam, described by Addo as "the financing master" of Blatter's bid for the Presidency, Surprise, surprise; Bin Hammam denies it. But the walls are closing in. Blatter is on the run.