David Conn has spent years writing about corruption at Fifa. When he was granted an audience with its deposed president over lunch in Zurich, he found there was more to the man than the arch-villain of popular caricature

In any account of the extraordinary rise and fall into corruption of footballs world governing body, Fifa, since the landmark 1974 election of the Brazilian president Joo Havelange, Sepp Blatter has to be a central figure. His expulsion at the age of 79 by Fifas ethics committee, terminating his fifth stint as president, was as precipitous as a fall can be: from being courted by prime ministers and presidents, to a ban from any activities relating to football.

He is serving that ban still, for the 2m Swiss francs (1.35m) payment in 2011 to Michel Platini, the former president of European footballs governing body Uefa, which both men claimed was back pay for work at Fifa Platini had concluded nine years earlier.

When I was working on my book about Fifa and its serial corruption scandals, Blatter agreed to see me in Zurich in the summer of 2016, six months after he was banned from Fifa, whose inner workings and culture he had mastered over 40 years.

Looking at the course of his time at the organisation, I saw another dimension to Blatter and Fifa than the arch-villains of popular caricature. The photograph of him marooned in a blizzard of dollars thrown by the comedian Simon Brodkin could now be endlessly reproduced as the defining image of his tenure, but his record is more complex. He had arrived at the old Fifa in 1975, at the start of the watershed Havelange presidency, and become president 23 years later, when fistfuls of dollars were always going to rain on football. His first job had been to orchestrate Havelanges development programme, and, for all the scandals and criticisms, nobody can deny that there has been a major concrete legacy of global improvement.

Blatter
Blatter in the blizzard of dollars at an executive committee meeting at Fifa HQ in Zurich, 20 July 20 2015. Photograph: Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters

So far, through a ferocious investigation of all Fifas books, he has not been accused of taking any money corruptly, while all around him footballs chiefs were helping themselves to it.

He was accused, more persuasively, of having known it was going on but doing nothing to address it; of keeping the crooks on the executive committee happy and the cash flowing to the national FAs, to maintain his prime purpose: his own position as the head of Fifa. Personally, there seemed to be more to him as well, than the consiglieri-turned-don portrayal of him at the head of the Fifa family. People who knew him said that along with his wiles, ambition and ruthlessness were charm and a sense of humour, and that he did really love football.

Blatter and his press adviser, Thomas Renggli, had named a place we could talk: Sonnenberg restaurant . In the flurry of preparing the long list of allegations I needed to put to Blatter, I didnt quite register the significance of the location.

At the restaurant the staff knew I was meeting him; we were expected. I was early and they sat me on the terrace, looking down to the lake and the beautiful city around it. There was a flag at the front that I couldnt quite make out, so I moved to see it properly. Here, flying high at the top of the hill, was a Fifa flag with the logo on it: For the Game, for the World, and slowly it dawned on me that this must be Fifas own restaurant. This was Hitzigweg, of course, and next door was the old Fifa House where Blatter had arrived as a thruster. After his ban, this was where he still chose to meet, at the place where he was king, before the fall.

He arrived a little late.

He didnt look too great. Shrunken, almost frail. He had let the shaving go, and his beard was white and thin. He was wearing a waistcoat over a blue-and-white striped shirt, on which you could just see his initials: JSB. He looked his age, 80.

When we began to talk, he told me immediately that it was true: under the pressure of the arrests and the ethics charge against him, he had suffered a breakdown. I had this collapse on 1 November and this was at the cemetery, he said. The Catholics, we always go to the cemetery to pay honour to our parents, all the families in the same grave, and I was there, I felt very bad at that time. They brought me immediately back to Zurich in a clinic; my immune system had collapsed.

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A protester makes his point after a police raid at the hotel Baur au Lac in Zurich during the US investigation into Fifa corruption. Photograph: Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images

When I asked him about the arrests of Fifa officials at the Baur au Lac hotel in May 2015 and whether he was bitter at the US attorney generals description of Fifa as a racketeering investigation, he replied: I was not bitter, I was shocked. And I have never recuperated about the shock.

Now he was back up and battling; appealing to the court of arbitration for sport against his ethics committee ban [he later lost the case], defending his record to the Swiss investigators. He had time on his hands, though, for the first time in his life, and we would have three hours or so over lunch. In that time, he would indeed be quite funny at times, sharp, scathing of some who had crossed him, and would tell me he had done nothing wrong. He would decry his accusers, blaming the investigations on the 2010 vote to send the 2022 World Cup to Qatar (which he had not wanted) and on England and the US, who had been bad losers after their own bids failed; and denounce the very principle of whistleblowers. It would become clear, as I listened, that his whole perspective was habitually narrowed to its power-politics dynamics, and how he navigated them to remain on top.

Blatter could not understand why the US had gone for him when he had supported their bid to host the 2022 World Cup. Then he confirmed what had so often been speculated: that this plan was part of his ultimate aspiration to claim a Nobel prize, to be recognised to have made a major contribution to world peace.

I asked him if it was true that he wanted a Nobel peace prize, and he replied with all due modesty that it would not be for him personally, but for Fifa, for the game: We had meetings with the Nobel prize organisation. I was there, and what I was asking, really asking, was for the Nobel prize: for football, not for a man. It is the movement, for Fifa.

Discussing Blatters fall, one senior figure at Fifa observed to me that it was the greatest anticlimax possible. There he had been at 79; he survived every challenge. He thought he was about to top it all by clasping his hands on the Nobel prize, when it was all snatched away, imploded in disgrace, and he was out.

Spain
Spain celebrate winning the 2010 World Cup with Sepp Blatter. Photograph: Javier Soriano/AFP/Getty Images

There was a thunderstorm and we moved inside. Blatter hailed some people he knew at other tables one, Renggli told me, was a very prominent banker in Zurich and I sensed a slight discomfort in their parties as they shook hands with him. He was quite cheery, flirted a little with the waitress and we ordered. She recommended the cte de boeuf, and when it arrived, rare, it was a tremendous joint of meat, served with saut potatoes and mushrooms porcini, of deep flavour. Blatter ordered some white wine, and we carried on talking about Fifa.

His chippiness about his provincial roots was clear after all these years, a need to show he had proved himself; even at 80, he referred to being from an Alpine region considered a backwater. He believes some of his troubles stemmed from jealousy in his country: In Switzerland, you should never be too successful, otherwise they dont like that, he said.

And I am from this part of Switzerland, the Valais, where they think we are still people from the mountains, mountaineers, and we are behind the moon, he said, sitting in the smart restaurant in Zurich with the Fifa flag at the front. I have a better image in most of the countries of the world than here.

Blatter told me one of his strategies for getting on in life, getting ahead of people. I was a workaholic. When I was in Zurich, I started at 7am in the office; there was no need but it was a principle, and to be the last one who left the office. I liked this advance in the morning, waking up, listening to the news on the different radios. And if you do that during so very many years, not only at Fifa, all my life; you have always a bit of an advantage of time, and also advantage of knowledge. This is important; this was my way.

Michel
Michel Platini at the court of arbitration for sport … Blatter blames him for taking vital World Cup votes away from the US. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Blatter blames Platini, and the crucial votes that the Frenchman took away from the US after his now famous lunch with the then French president Nicolas Sarkozy, and the emir of Qatar, for, as Blatter saw it, the disastrous vote to take the World Cup to Qatar. Blatter, who knew Fifa best, argues that it is a distraction to look for bribery when it comes to the World Cup votes. His argument is that the US indictments accuse regional football chiefs of indulging in kickbacks on their own turf when selling TV rights, but he did not believe such practices determined World Cup votes: The World Cups are not bought; they are influenced by political pressure, he reflected. Sarkozy changed everything. He asked Platini to look for the interests of France and vote with his colleagues.

Blatter seethed that after the lunch Platini took decisive votes with him, although Platini has always said he made his own mind up.

Some weeks before that, he told me that we cant go to Qatar because everybody will say we [must] have been under pressure to go to Qatar that we were paid, or pressurised. Then he comes with that …

I asked him how he had felt when he pulled the name Qatar out of the envelope.

Look at the picture, he replied, and grimaced. I havent had a very smiling face.

He is convinced that the US investigations began from then, and he railed at the Swiss authorities for cooperating so fully, at the unfairness of it all. He accepted that the American investigators appeared to have found major corruption, mentioning kickbacks on Copa America TV deals, but he argued that had nothing to do with Fifa itself, it involved the confederations, over which he had no control.

So why the hell then should the Fifa president bear all the charges, the responsibility and the blame?

Concacaf
Concacaf president Jeffrey Webb admitted taking bribes for TV deals. Photograph: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

He singled out former Confederation of North, Central American And Caribbean Association Football (Concacaf) president Jeff Webb as the most breathtaking scoundrel of all. Blatter recalled being at the publication of the Concacaf integrity report, which identified the alleged frauds of the former secretary general and president Chuck Blazer and Jack Warner, and that Webb presented himself as the president for a new era of decency.

Jeffrey Webb had tears coming down his face, saying: I am humbled, I accept it; I promise I will do that. Blatter, warming up, did a little impression of Webb, and mimed the weeping.

Then, on that morning at the Baur au Lac: The first one arrested was him, Blatter said. How can you be misled by that or by yourself to say this man is a correct man? I was already thinking that he could be tomorrow the president of Fifa, a good person, a strong man.

Last year, Webb pleaded guilty to US charges of corruption, having helped himself to bribes and kickbacks from TV deals as soon as he was in a position to do so as Concacaf president.

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Blatter (right) with then Fifa president Joao Havelange and Brazils Pele in 1987. Photograph: Bob Thomas/Getty Images

Throughout the conversation, Blatter maintained he did not know that the people around that executive committee table, whose support he nurtured for so many years, were corrupt. He said that after the arrests he had thought he had been wrong to trust people although he admitted that he was not surprised about some of them.

Of Warner, Blatter insisted he had not known or suspected him of wrongdoing. Again, the point at which he said he stopped trusting him related to Blatters own position when he was standing for the presidential election in 2011 and whether Warner was supporting him, rather than any of the alleged frauds.

I asked him about the handing out of cash in Trinidad following a meeting of Caribbean football associations with Blatters challenger for the Fifa presidency, Mohamed Bin Hammam Of Qatar, which really generated the major US investigation, and Blatters take was still electoral: At a certain time I stopped believing him, because he was saying that he did this special meeting there [for bin Hammam] but [said] it doesnt matter, [the Caribbean delegates] will all vote for you.

Asked about an alleged $10m bribe from South Africa to Warner, to vote for the country to host the 2010 World Cup, Blatter said that South Africas then-president Thabo Mbeki had decided to have a legacy fund for the African diaspora and the Caribbean was the natural place for it; Fifa did not pay the money itself, only deducted the $10m from the South Africa organising committees budget. The idea had been a surprise to him, he said, and anyway the money was paid a long time after the vote to have the World Cup in South Africa, so was not connected to it. When I put to him that Blazer, Warners general secretary at Concacaf, had told the US law enforcement authorities that it was a bribe, Blatter replied, quite quickly: I am not involved in this case. I have not even seen that [the money] has passed from Fifa.

Yuliya
Yuliya Stepanova … her exposure of Russian state doping of athletes was snitching according to Blatter. Photograph: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP

He is not impressed with whistleblowers in general, even criticising Yuliya Stepanova, who had recently exposed the Russian state doping of athletes, the great scandal breaking over athletics. She wants to go to the Olympics, and now everybody says it is a shame she cant go because she is a whistleblower. Before long whistleblowers will be allowed to go to everything, he sneered. Because if you are a whistleblower, its not correct as well.

Startled by that statement, I asked him to clarify; was he saying whistleblowers are not correct?

No, he confirmed. At school, if you had somebody who was a whistleblower towards the tutor, then … and he trailed off, as if it was obvious.

Do you still think that? I asked.

Yes.

That they are like a snitch in school?

Yes, yes, he said.

He was scathing about Blazer: Blazer was at the Olympics as a representative of Fifa, and he was wired by the FBI. So, what is such a country trying to give us lessons in how to honestly do a job?

Do you think that is deceitful? I asked him.

How can you do that? [Blazer] accepted because it was his escape, but it is incredible.

Of himself, he believed that the authorities would find nothing to incriminate him. He was still indignant that he had lost the position he worked so hard for, over the 2m Swiss francs payment to Platini. He argued there was nothing wrong except a failure to note that they had an oral agreement for Platini to be paid that amount of money. It had nothing to do with seeking Platinis support for the Fifa presidential election of 2011; Platini had already said he was staying at Uefa, and Fifas ethics committee found it was not corruption or bribery.

Blatter disagreed even that it was a conflict of interest at the time. When I was banned I was so much surprised, he said.

I told him that he did seem quite relaxed. I am relaxed, he said, because I would have stopped all the matters if I feel really guilty and that something could happen to me in a criminal case. I would have stopped everything, taken a rucksack, I would be somewhere in a Valais alp with my pipe or cigar, I would have radio and television, I would be there. I would be like the Greek philosopher when they come to visit him and they say: Can we do something for you? and he says: Yes, you can go away.

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I am still the boss here … Sepp Blatter. Photograph: Michael Buholzer/AFP/Getty Images

There was something a little odd that he pictured it like this, that if he was ever caught out, he would not be in jail, but could retire back to the obscurity of the Valais. Listening to it, I felt he should have taken that option, retired, and lived that vision some years ago. A pipe, radio, feet up, a bit of sunshine in the Alps. Rather than be here at the age of 80, his life in the hands of lawyers.

He had to be off, and he called for the bill. It is always an awkward predicament, the bill when you meet for lunch as a journalist.

I had decided in advance that I would insist on paying even at these prices, at Fifas Sonnenberg restaurant .

No, Blatter insisted, he had already paid. Its done.

I said really I ought to pay, as he was giving me his time.

No, no, not in my restaurant, he said, and then, through gritted teeth: Well, its not mine, but I am still the boss here.

Then Sepp Blatter said his goodbyes. The chef and staff of the restaurant loyally came out to line up and shake his hand. He was ushered into the black Mercedes and back down the hill.

Blatters time is finally done; he is not the boss any more. And nobody can say what the future holds: for Fifa, for the game, for the world.

This is an extract from The Fall of the House of Fifa by David Conn (published by Yellow Jersey Press, 16.99). To order a copy for 14.44, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of 1.99.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2017/jun/19/sepp-blatter-fifa-president-corruption-

Sepp Blatter after the fall: Why the hell should I bear all the blame?
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