FIFA boss Sepp Blatter says he's not a 'ruthless parasite'
LONDON (AP) — FIFA President Sepp Blatter fiercely defended his integrity in a speech to students on Friday, maintaining he is not a "ruthless parasite sucking the lifeblood" out of football and claiming to be victimized by critics who wished he died at birth.
With FIFA still trying to repair its reputation following a series of corruption scandals, Blatter used a keynote address at Oxford University in England to say he has become a "scapegoat" for wrongdoing in football.
The 77-year-old Swiss also tried to dispel suggestions he was a plotting from "Bond villain headquarters" how to profiteer from World Cups before "laughing all the way to the bank."
FIFA released a copy of Blatter's prepared speech at Oxford's debating chamber on Friday, with reporters not allowed access to the event. Some of the harshest criticism against Blatter has come from England, and his speech comes at a time when he appears to be paving the way to run for a fifth term in 2015 despite initially pledging to step down.
In highly-charged comments at a debating chamber where many prime ministers and heads of state have spoken before, Blatter expressed disbelief about why he is so loathed by some in football.
"You ask yourself, 'What have I done? Why has it come to this?'" Blatter said. "Is FIFA to blame for everything? Are we not just a football organization working for the good of the game? How did it come to this?
"People like a scapegoat, of course, but how could things have become so twisted? As you can see, I am not some overbearing bully who can intimidate my critics with one look and strong arm governments to my will. ... I am a servant of football. Not a dictator."
FIFA's reputation has been devastated over the last three years by corruption scandals — many uncovered by British-based journalists — that have led to several members of Blatter's executive committee being forced out in disgrace before and after two much-scrutinized votes on World Cup hosts. An ethics investigation continues into the process that led to the 2018 World Cup being awarded to Russia and the 2022 tournament to Qatar.
"Perhaps you think I am a ruthless parasite sucking the lifeblood out of the world and out of football," Blatter said. "The Godfather of the FIFA gravy train."
Blatter said his entire life since a troubled birth has been a fight, although he believes some of his fiercest critics might wish he never survived.
"I very nearly did not make it past birth ... even then, as a helpless baby struggling for life, there were some people who were against me," Blatter said. "My grandmother advised my mother to let me go. To not try to save me because it was not worth the trouble. ... Looking back, perhaps some of my friends in the British media might have agreed wholeheartedly with my grandmother."
While often portraying himself as thick-skinned, Blatter presented himself as an executive tormented by media criticism.
"You would have to have a heart of stone for it not to hurt," he said.
Blatter is in England to attend the English Football Association's 150th anniversary dinner Saturday — which will also be attended by leading British football journalists.
"I know I am far from perfect and that we at FIFA must always look to get better at what we do," Blatter said, outlining how governance reforms have been pushed through after some executives "tarnished FIFA's good name."
While accepting that some criticism is fair, Blatter set out to challenge perceptions about the "secrets and intrigue" surrounding the governing body.
"You may think you know what FIFA is. What it does. What it aspires to be," Blatter said. "A faceless machine printing money at the expense of the beautiful game, with me pulling the strings and laughing all the way to the bank.
"There are those who will tell you that football is just a heartless, money-spinning game or just a pointless kick about on the grass. There are those who will tell you that FIFA is just a conspiracy, a scam, accountable to nobody."
Continuing in that vein, Blatter reeled off other negative stereotypes people have about world football's leadership.
"There are those who will tell you of the supposed sordid secrets that lie deep in our (James) Bond villain headquarters in the hills above Zurich, where we apparently plot to exploit the unfortunate and the weak," Blatter said. "They would have you believe that I sit in my office with a sinister grin, gently stroking the chin of an expensive, white Persian cat as my terrible sidekicks scour the earth to force countries to host the World Cup and to hand over all of their money.
"You might laugh. It is strange how fantasy so easily becomes confused with fact."
He also directly addressed allegations of financial misappropriation, which resurfaced following the votes to award World Cups to Russia and Qatar.
"Contrary to what you might have heard, FIFA does not expect host nations to hand over suitcases of cash to FIFA," Blatter said. "We do not ask for billions of dollars in public money and then bury it all in the Alps."
Blatter, who has never disclosed his salary, wants FIFA to get more credit for being financially transparent.
"We are not an unscrupulous multinational company doing everything they can just for the sake of making money, selling products that do you harm, exploiting people just for the sake of the profit of a few," Blatter said.
The profit generated by World Cups and distributed to national federations help keep more than half of FIFA's 209 member associations afloat, according to Blatter.
"You might have been led to believe FIFA is the evil Sherriff of Nottingham of football," he said. "But the truth is we have more in common with Robin Hood. Taking the money we get from our commercial partners and ploughing it back into the grassroots of the game for all to benefit."
Rob Harris can be reached at www.twitter.com/RobHarris