On Friday, one week after news broke that FIFA President Sepp Blatter is the subject of a Swiss criminal investigation into a misuse of power and potentially even bribery, for the first time, major FIFA sponsors have called on the Swiss president to immediately vacate his position. Coca-Cola, one of FIFA’s largest and most lucrative sponsorship deals, was the first to publicly ask Blatter to resign.
“For the benefit of the game, the Coca-Cola Company is calling for FIFA president Joseph Blatter to step down immediately so that a credible and sustainable reform process can begin in earnest. Every day that passes, the image and reputation of FIFA continues to tarnish. FIFA needs comprehensive and urgent reform, and that can only be accomplished through a truly independent approach.”
Shortly after, McDonalds chimed in as well.
“The events of recent weeks have continued to diminish the reputation of FIFA and public confidence in its leadership. We believe it would be in the best interest of the game for FIFA president Sepp Blatter to step down immediately so that the reform process can proceed with the credibility that is needed.”
“Whatever,” Blatter responded. Well, in so many words.
A statement from Blatter’s lawyer attempted to be politic, paying homage to Coca-Cola’s corporate power, but nonetheless affirming Blatter’s intransigence in his refusal to step down immediately.
“While Coca Cola is a valued sponsor of FIFA, Mr. Blatter respectfully disagrees with its position 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 pressure from Coca-Cola and McDonalds—who are a “second-tier sponsor,” meaning they don’t front quite as much cash as Coke, but are nonetheless an important asset—is precisely what John Oliver called for back in May. Hell, it’s the cause for which he even deigned to chug a Bud Light Lime. And, no doubt about it, it’s progress.
But the corporate giants have only just begun to tip their hand.
Two things remain to be seen. First, will other sponsors follow suit now that Coke and McDonalds have called for Blatter’s resignation? Hyundai? Gazprom? What about a sponsor like Adidas? Considering Adidas is a sportswear corporation that actually has cultural capital and brand integrity to think about, tied so closely to FIFA as they are, might they be more hesitant? Or, conversely, might they have an even greater stake in pushing for reform?
Over the course of the coming days and weeks, it will be interesting to see if other major sponsors jump on the ‘Blatter must go’ bandwagon.
But an even more critical question is whether or not Coca-Cola and McDonalds are actually willing to use their full leverage as sponsors to see Blatter ousted from power. It’s one thing to make a public statement—and it’s no small thing, either. But to threaten pulling sponsorship, to calculate an alternative advertising strategy to the global reach of FIFA, that’s something else entirely.
And if that ‘something else’ comes to pass, then Blatter will have hardly enough time to grab his family photos and his paper shredder while being booted out the door.
FIFA are willing to see out the year with Blatter at the helm so long as the boat doesn’t rock too much. A criminal investigation in Switzerland? Well, that’s a bit of choppy water, but nothing’s been proven. Multi-millions of sponsorship money being cut off? That’s a tsunami—one that even Sepp Blatter won’t weather.