Beleaguered FIFA president Sepp Blatter still has support in the alpine region of Switzerland he calls home. But has the scandal surrounding world football changed the view of locals towards him?
“Sepp is really a strong point for Valais and Upper Valais [region],” said Peter Schmid, one of the locals at the annual Sepp Blatter football tournament willing to talk to swissinfo.ch. “He’s a real Valaisan, who is never scared to contact anyone, and to speak with anyone. He’s a very down-to-earth man.”
The event was held in the village of Ulrichen on Saturday. Just like every year for the past 18 years, Blatter returned to Ulrichen, his family’s ancestral village in Upper Valais, to host the Sepp Blatter Tournament, where members of local football teams, as well as retired international football stars, play to mostly local crowds, bringing a bit of pizazz to the otherwise tranquil mountain village.
“Mr Joseph Blatter – Seppli for us – is a real gentleman, someone who has worked well and who never did anything bad at FIFA,” said one man, declining to give his name.
Others refused to comment, or even walked away when approached.
“It’s a bit easy to hit him on the head. He is a real Valaisan, and someone who has done a lot for the sport. We should put certain things aside now and try to enjoy the day and the party,” said Yvan Quentin, a former local footballer who played for the Swiss national team. Quentin was an invited guest on this day.
Several people commented nonetheless that the atmosphere this year was more subdued than in the past, including Christian Constantin, the president of Sion, the top division club from the region. “Wouldn’t you say that there are fewer people this year rubbing shoulders with him here?”
Philippe Blatter, the president of the event’s organising committee in Ulrichen, and a distant cousin of Sepp, remarked on the increased number of journalists attending the tournament this year.
Conspicuous by their absence were football legends Franz Beckenbauer and Michel Platini, who were regulars at the event in the past.
Beckenbauer, declined the invitation following his son’s recent death. Platini, who last month announced his candidacy for FIFA president was, according to Blatter, invited, but decided not to attend.
Blatter's life journey
Born and bred in in the industrial town of Visp further down the Rhone valley, with its expansive Lonza chemical factory, where his father had worked, Blatter initially moved to the French-speaking part of the canton for his secondary education, before attending university in Lausanne.
Despite his early passion for football, he began in the corporate world after his father allegedly told him that there was no money to be made in football, breaking his ambition to join a top-league Swiss team. The young man then started his rise within various organisations, first in Valais at the tourism board, before following a track leading him up the Swiss and then international sports echelons. Blatter was appointed secretary general of the Swiss Hockey Association, then head of sports sponsorships at the Longines watch company and in 1975 began his career at FIFA.end of infobox
Over the years, the head of the international football association has occasionally spoken publicly about how he hails from this south-western canton, which tourists may know more for its world-class ski resorts such as Verbier and Zermatt.
Ulrichen is located near the source of the Rhone River and surrounded by some of Switzerland’s highest peaks.
“This is where I have my roots. By having my roots here means that it’s the energy that I am getting from here. You can see how I am received here,” he told swissinfo.ch, as he mingled amongst supporters assembled around the pitch and at nearby picnic tables.
On the flyer that was distributed locally inviting people to the event, Blatter quoted Valais’ cantonal hymn. “Deep in my heart I am a true Valaisan, a son of the mountains.”
Constantin explained that while Blatter remained “united with his origins,” he like many others before him, such as locals who migrated to Argentina in the 19th century, left this “peripheral” region of Switzerland looking for better horizons.
In Visp, the industrial town further down the valley where Blatter grew up, people at the popular Café Napoleon – owned by Blatter’s son-in-law - told swissinfo.ch that their homeboy has been returning there more regularly.
Until recently, he travelled everywhere, meeting with heads of states around the world, and promoting FIFA globally. In late June, after skipping the Women’s World Cup final in Canada, Blatter said he would not travel as long as the crisis continued. (He did however attend the 2018 World Cup draw in Russia in July).
Passersby on Visp’s main square said that Blatter had acquired a large property there, with plans to renovate it.
Charles Louis Joris, a geologist, who knows Blatter, saw him as a man of the world rather than a typical Valaisan, a “globetrotter”, which he admitted was rather rare in that region.
Back in Ulrichen, Blatter suggested to swissinfo.ch that he, like the Rhone River - which flows through the valley to Geneva, and then on through France to the Mediterranean coast - was destined to move on, to wider horizons.
“When retiring, I will have one foot here in the Valais, one foot specifically nearby Visp where my daughter is,” he said, adding “but the other one, I must have somewhere else. I am a nomad now, I have to travel, I cannot stop, and I hope I can be around for a long time.”
So with Blatter expected to retire as FIFA’s president next February, will this year’s social event in Ulrichen be the last Sepp Blatter tournament?
“It is a legend now, after 18 years, you cannot stop it,” he said. “The people here have to decide, but I am sure they will not let the name out, because the name is from here. So it’s a good name, still a good name. Some people say this is not a good name, but it’s a good name.”
Other Blatter support?
The head of FIFA’s reform task force, Francois Carrard, told the Sunday paper Le Matin Dimanche that criticism of Sepp Blatter was “unfair” and that there was no evidence that football organisation’s president was involved in corruption.
“This man has been unfairly treated. And if we talk about corruption... I have the whole US proceedings on my table. In the indictment, there is not one word against him. Nothing. Today I am not aware of any indication of corruption against Blatter,” the former director general of the International Olympic Committee said.
Separately, Reuters reported there was a reduced level of cooperation between US and Swiss authorities investigating corruption at FIFA, and a realisation in Switzerland that existing legislation may limit prosecution into these cases, according to sources close to the issue.
Those sources said that earlier cooperation between authorities in the two countries that led to the arrest of seven international football officials in Zurich in May, has tapered off. Formal requests for information to assist investigations in either country, which need to be obtained through a formal mechanism, known as a mutual legal assistance treaty (MLAT) have not materialised after a first demand made by US authorities.
end of infobox