Sepp Blatter interview: ‘I don’t want anything special – just a thank you’

Sepp Blatter in Zurich being interviewed by Telegraph Sport
Sepp Blatter has written his autobiography titled Overtime - Siggi Bucher

Sepp Blatter is back at Fifa. Almost eight and a half years since he last inhabited the most powerful seat in world football, the “Godfather” of the modern game has returned to the Fifa House he built.

He cannot enter, of course. He has been banned from doing so since being cast out of the sport during its worst ever corruption scandal. Seeing Fifa’s Zurich headquarters up close therefore brings back bittersweet memories for a man who has gone from appearing untouchable atop football’s highest authority to being pursued like a villainous traitor by it.

Blatter is here while promoting a new autobiography, aptly entitled Overtime, in between conducting interviews about the book at a nearby restaurant. That is where he opens up about his extraordinary downfall, the criminal action against him he says he almost died while fighting, and his fears it may yet follow him to his grave.

‘The angels were coming. I said I’m not ready to go’

Blatter has just turned 88 and is noticeably frailer than the figure who maintained a stranglehold on the Fifa presidency for 17 years, albeit still perfectly turned out in a navy-blue suit and open-necked white shirt. As he begins to speak, it is clear that what friends would call his unique charisma, and enemies his boundless ego, remains undiminished, as does his flair for the theatrical.

“Not president,” he says when asked how he prefers to be addressed, before adding. “I am ‘Le President’ in France. Because you never lose a title when you are promoted in France.”

For those who buy into what Blatter complains in his book is a portrayal of him as “a thief, a fraudster, a liar, a fraudulent deceiver or a document forger with criminal intentions”, the loss of a title is the least he deserves. To them, he is a mafia don who should be locked up. Like those henchmen spirited away under bedsheets in the FBI-led dawn raid of their favourite luxury Zurich hotel back on May 27, 2015.

They may yet get their wish. Having avoided a similar fate to those Fifa executives extradited to the United States – Switzerland does not hand its citizens over to foreign powers – Blatter has since been pursued for years through his own nation’s criminal justice system.

He thought it was all over in July 2022 when he and Michel Platini were found not guilty of fraud and other offences over the notorious two million Swiss francs (£1.8 million) Blatter paid the ex-Uefa president 11-and-a-half years earlier. But an appeal was lodged against their acquittals that has dragged the saga into a ninth year.

All this has taken a major toll on Blatter’s health. On the first day of his trial, he told the court he was too ill to testify because of chest pains. That was after having had heart surgery a year and a half earlier which resulted in him spending a week in an induced coma. The latter culminated in what he now describes as a quintessential near-death experience.

“I had hallucinations,” he recalls. “I have seen that angels were coming for me and wanted to take me off. And I have said, ‘No, I’m not ready to go’. I was in a coma, I was out, and there were two lovely white-dressed ladies that were looking after me and I had some apparatus to breathe. And then they had to change it. But, in my dream – or, at that time, my reality – it was that there were angels. They said, ‘You have to come. You have to die now. They are awaiting you in heaven’. I took more than three months afterwards just to realise that I’m still alive.”

Sepp Blatter in Zurich being interviewed by Telegraph Sport
Blatter believes his trial in Switzerland contributed to his health problems - Siggi Bucher

Upon regaining consciousness, he says he was initially immobile and lost the power of speech, the latter returning initially only in the form of the dialect of his Valais birthplace, before being followed by French, English and Spanish.

This is not the first time Blatter has described being “very close” to death. In Nov 2015, weeks after being placed under criminal investigation and banned by Fifa over the Platini payment, he told Swiss TV channel RTS he had collapsed while visiting his parents’ grave. He added: “I was among the angels singing and the devil with the fire. But it was the angels who sang.”

His latest brush with mortality has convinced him he was always destined for a higher purpose. “I was premature when I was born. I was one kilo, 250 grams [2.76lbs],” he says, recounting fears he would “not survive”. He adds: “They say my mother must have been a saint.”

‘Americans are bad losers’

Sepp Blatter in Zurich being interviewed by Telegraph Sport
Blatter back at Fifa headquarters in Zurich - Siggi Bucher

Blatter says he suspects those pursuing criminal action against him in Switzerland – including Fifa itself – are banking on him finally succumbing to nature before his retrial so he avoids winning again in court. He also claims to have had a tip-off that authorities in the United States investigating the theft of $200 million (£156 million) from the game – described in 2015 as “the World Cup of fraud” – planned to put him “in handcuffs” if he ever went there.

The US may have missed its chance. Six months ago, a New York judge quashed a pair of convictions in the Fifa scandal, citing an earlier May ruling by the country’s Supreme Court that foreign commercial bribery schemes were not prohibited under American law. More appeals are pending from those brought to justice partly thanks to one of Blatter’s own corrupt executives, the late Chuck Blazer, turning super-grass and covertly recording colleagues using a key-fob with a hidden microphone.

“Americans, they’re bad losers,” says Blatter, who has always suspected what happened in 2015 was revenge for the now-infamous Dec 2010 award of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar at the expense of the US. For that, he still blames Platini, who he accuses of swinging the vote on where the tournament would be staged in favour of the tiny Gulf state. Blatter claims Platini bowed to pressure from then French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who had been forging strong links with Qatar. Sarkozy and Platini have both denied this. Blatter has always maintained his own vote went to the US.

Whatever the US authorities’ motives, the bidding process for what was both the 2018 and 2022 World Cups was indisputably mired in bribery and corruption. The same could be said for Fifa itself for much of Blatter’s entire time there, not only throughout his long reign as president but his 25-year career beforehand. So much so that the most enduring image of that era is of him being showered in fake banknotes by British comedian and serial prankster Simon Brodkin at the height of the 2015 scandal.

Fifa president Sepp Blatter looks on as fake dollar notes fly around him
Fake US dollar bills are thrown at Blatter at Fifa's headquarters in 2015 - Getty Images/Fabrice Coffrini

Blatter was not amused. “Those who have done it, they are not friends of football – definitely not,” he says of the stunt. “And they have to ask themselves what is the damage they have done to the game?”

Blatter has always denied any personal involvement in the paying or taking of bribes. He was cleared in 2013 of knowingly handling a bung intended for predecessor Joao Havelange. He has said he had no knowledge of brown envelopes stuffed with cash that were alleged to have changed hands during his own maiden presidential election campaign in 1998. And he said the same about a $10 million (£7.85 million) payment by South Africa that the country’s government also denied was intended to buy votes to secure it the 2010 World Cup.

It remains a source of deep resentment that his ongoing ban from football has come courtesy of the Fifa ethics committee set up during his presidency. “My committee,” he laments. Both he and Platini maintain the payment behind their 2015 suspensions was for work carried out on Blatter’s 1998 election campaign, over which they struck a “gentleman’s agreement” to defer to a later date. The timing of Platini finally receiving the cash, between the award of the 2022 World Cup and Blatter’s 2011 bid for re-election, could hardly have been worse.

Two years ago, and with Blatter’s six-year ban about to expire, Fifa’s ethics committee extended his exile until June 2027. That was after finding he accepted undue economic benefits totalling 23 million Swiss francs (£20.4 million) and approved payments or bonuses of a further 46 million Swiss francs (£40.8 million) to other officials. He chose not to appeal against a verdict of a body he said had become an “extended arm” of his successor, Gianni Infantino.

Blatter’s new book is much a polemic against his fellow Swiss polyglot as a memoir of his own career, with Infantino accused of having a “vendetta” against him and of seeking to “destroy” his legacy. That includes by expanding the World Cup to 48 teams, the “absurd” staging of the 2030 edition across three continents, and the impending coronation of Saudi Arabia as hosts four years later.

Overtime, which features contributions from Blatter’s daughter and other figures, portrays its author as a wrongfully persecuted patriarch who both saved Fifa and “created a monster” in making it and the World Cup what they are today. The book also features an account of his criminal trial – “I kept feeling like I was in the wrong movie” – and some of the other corruption allegations against him. But not all the controversies are accounted for, particularly those that saw him subjected to ridicule: his bid to use football to bring peace to the Middle East – and his pursuit of a Nobel Peace prize – for example; his claim racism could be solved with a handshake (a comment he later retracted); or his suggestion female players could wear “tighter shorts” to promote the women’s game. There is certainly no mention of a vehemently-denied accusation by former US Women goalkeeper Hope Solo that he sexually assaulted her – “I had Sepp Blatter grab my ass” – at the Fifa Ballon d’Or awards ceremony 11 years ago.

‘English football is too successful’

Reflecting now on his 42 years at Fifa and whether he simply clung on to power for too long, he says: “If I would always go through all my life back [over] what was wrong, what would have been better, then I would start to put myself in situations where I would say, (lowering his voice) ‘Oh, you’re a bad boy. You are a bad boy already at school’.” He adds: “Let’s say I have no regrets [about] what I have done and especially no regrets [about] what I have not done.”

He prefers to focus on the good times, his personal highlights reel including a reception by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace two decades ago to mark Fifa’s 100th anniversary – “one of the greatest events in my life”. He retains a keen interest in the Royal Family, having earlier brought up the doctored Mother’s Day photograph of the Princess of Wales and her children.

Blatter’s affection for the British monarchy did not help football ‘come home’ when England were twice humiliated bidding for the World Cup on his watch and he suggests the nation’s standing in the game has diminished further since the late Queen’s passing. He laughs when asked where previous bids had gone wrong and what could be done to bring the tournament back to what he calls “the Motherland”.

“I would say, in my life, I will not witness it!” he says. “The problem is that English football is too successful.” He also warns that certain stereotypes still persist of the British – “nose in the air, (imitating the accent) ‘We are British. We are English’”. He says he would love football to do “something very special for England”. But he adds: “Who would say that now when the game is in the hands of the Arabs?”

Fifa president Sepp Blatter looks on as fake dollar notes fly around him
Blatter would like to see England host a World Cup but is pessimistic about it becoming reality - Siggi Bucher

He talks about changes he would make if he were still at Fifa, including to the Video Assistant Referees system it oversees. “I would say, ‘We must have the same system for the whole of football’, and not only a system for the rich. Because it’s a system for the rich.” Of sin-bins in the sport, he adds: “Let the game be as simple as it is.”

But, despite his pilgrimage to Fifa HQ, he wants to make it clear he is not dreaming of making a comeback, saying: “I don’t miss the presidency. I live for football still now because I cannot forget football.

“I was 42 years in Fifa but I’m aware that I’m out of the game. Out of the game physically. But I’m still into the game, which was my passion and my mission. I was like a missionary. And a missionary never gives up.”

He adds: “I only want what my daughter is saying in the book, that somebody should have said, ‘Thank you for what you have done’. That’s all. Nothing very special.”

Overtime, by Sepp Blatter, is available in German from Helvetia Verlag

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