Four of the top corporate sponsors of FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, took coordinated aim at the organization’s president, Sepp Blatter, on Friday, calling for him to resign and labeling him an obstacle to reform.
Mr. Blatter immediately rejected the demands of the four companies — Visa, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Anheuser-Busch InBev — suggesting that FIFA saw the public statements as little more than an idle threat.
“Every day that passes, the image and reputation of FIFA continues to tarnish,” Coca-Cola said in a news release, a sentiment that was quickly amplified in similar statements by the other sponsors. “FIFA needs comprehensive and urgent reform, and that can only be accomplished through a truly independent approach.”
Anheuser-Busch InBev called Mr. Blatter an “obstacle” to reform, and McDonald’s cited diminishing public confidence in his leadership. Visa said, “We believe no meaningful reform can be made under FIFA’s existing leadership.”
“Mr. Blatter respectfully disagrees with its position,” Richard Cullen, Mr. Blatter’s lawyer, said in response to Coca-Cola’s statement, “and believes firmly that his leaving office now would not be in the best interest of FIFA nor would it advance the process of reform and therefore, he will not resign.”
The four sponsors that called for Blatter’s resignation are some of FIFA’s most prominent and longest-serving benefactors. Coca-Cola and Visa are two of FIFA’s five official partners, its highest level of sponsorship, and each has paid tens of millions of dollars to be associated with soccer’s biggest events. Like Coca-Cola, a World Cup sponsor since 1982, McDonald’s and Anheuser-Busch InBev have relationships with FIFA that go back decades.
Mr. Blatter has been FIFA’s president since 1998, but after several top soccer and marketing officials closely linked to FIFA were arrested in May — and only days after he won a fifth term as president — he announced that he would give up his office. He called for a special election to choose his successor; that vote will be held in February.
Top sponsors initially reacted cautiously to the scandal and to Mr. Blatter’s announcement that he would step down, releasing statements that blandly called for more transparency and higher ethical standards. A few statements did not even mention Mr. Blatter.
FIFA was aware of the sponsors’ unhappiness about being connected with yet another ethical scandal involving world soccer’s leadership and said it would meet with the companies’ representatives privately to discuss their concerns. That meeting took place in August; Coca-Cola, Visa, McDonald’s and Anheuser-Busch InBev were among the companies represented.
Last week, however, Swiss authorities announced that they were investigating Mr. Blatter directly for “suspicion of criminal mismanagement and suspicion of misappropriation” of funds. On Sept. 25, a group of officials from the office of Switzerland‘s attorney general arrived at FIFA headquarters in Zurich and, over the next few hours, interrogated Mr. Blatter at length, searched his office and took boxes of documents.
“Given the events of last week,” Visa said Friday, “it’s clear it would be in the best interests of FIFA and the sport for Sepp Blatter to step down immediately.”
Anheuser-Busch InBev went further in calling for Mr. Blatter to step down, saying that “we believe his continued presence to be an obstacle in the reform process.”
The pressure from corporations could make it harder for Mr. Blatter to hold on to FIFA’s presidency until the special election in February. It is unclear what the companies can do other than express their displeasure through public statements like Friday’s announcements and in private meetings with FIFA’s leadership. Contracts bind the companies to FIFA for years, and their long partnerships are a testament to their eagerness to be associated, if not with FIFA, then at least with global events like the World Cup.
In rejecting the calls for his resignation almost as quickly as they were announced, Mr. Blatter might have been signaling that he was prepared to call the sponsors’ bluffs. He also may be counting on FIFA’s ability to replace them if they withdraw their financial support in the future. When two major corporate partners, Sony and Emirates, publicly ended their sponsorship agreements with FIFA last year, the blow was softened by a deal already in place with the Russian energy giant Gazprom.
Still, keeping his post is not entirely Mr. Blatter’s decision. FIFA’s ethics committee could suspend him, at least provisionally, as a result of the Swiss attorney general’s accusations. That was what the committee did to the officials indicted and arrested in May. And last month, Mr. Blatter’s top deputy, the FIFA general secretary Jérôme Valcke, was relieved of his duties after he was accused in an unrelated ethics investigation.