ZURICH — The end for Sepp Blatter came suddenly, just days after he had seemingly solidified his hold on FIFA.
The 79-year-old leader of the world’s most popular sport defied global animosity last week to win four more years in office. But his re-election only increased the pressure from colleagues, sponsors, athletes and fans for Blatter to step down as FIFA’s president.
At a hastily arranged news conference Tuesday, Blatter announced he would leave office within months and called for a fresh election to appoint a successor.
“I cherish FIFA more than anything and I want to do only what is best for FIFA and for football,” said Blatter, who could still be a target of U.S. investigators delving into decades of corruption and bribery accusations against FIFA officials.
After generations under Blatter and his mentor, Joao Havelange, the announcement left FIFA without a leader and without a clear course forward. It sets off a global power struggle for control of the organization as a criminal investigation intensifies.
A strained and serious Blatter read a six-minute statement in French before exiting without taking questions.
Blatter had been defiant and feisty in the same room on Saturday, fending off questions about FIFA’s battered reputation and the chance he could be arrested.
His mood had changed in the 24 hours before his announcement, Blatter aide Walter Gagg told The Associated Press.
A federal indictment last week detailed apparent bribes from a FIFA account totaling $10 million to senior officials for voting South Africa as the 2010 World Cup host. Late Monday, reports laid a clearer trail of complicity to the door of FIFA headquarters, if not Blatter himself.
“We know that the in the last 48 hours he was thinking of the future and perhaps what happened in the last hours, this gave him the conviction,” Gagg, a long-time confidante of Blatter, told the AP in a telephone interview.
“We had lunch with him yesterday (Monday). He was relaxed he was fine,” Gagg said. “I had a very good meeting with him early in the morning (today). Then came the different information from the U.S. with this and that.”
The South African angle threatens to tarnish memories of a bid campaign that brought Nelson Mandela to Zurich for the winning vote in 2004. At risk also is the legacy of a World Cup that was an organizational triumph for FIFA and South Africa, and bolstered Blatter’s reputation as a friend of Africa whose loyalty stood firm in Friday’s election.