Blatter free of FIFA 'burden,' backs Infantino
ZURICH >> At one minute past six on Friday evening in Zurich, Sepp Blatter had a glass of white wine and exhaled deeply.
FIFA had finally elected a new president and Blatter was relieved of the title after almost 18 years.
"It is a relief. I had this burden on me," he told The Associated Press on Saturday, seeming at peace and enjoying his first day out of FIFA's employment since 1975.
"It was even a welcome day yesterday, 18:01, when they had a new president," Blatter said in the European style for 6:01 p.m.
Blatter was unable to hand over power in person to Gianni Infantino, 35 years younger and a fellow native of the rural Valais canton in Switzerland.
Banned from duty since October by FIFA's ethics committee, Blatter was barred from attending the election hall across the city from his daughter's apartment. There, they watched the tense event unfold on television.
"Being suspended or not, I was still the elected president. And now it is finished," Blatter said, in an interview at the Sonnenberg restaurant attached to the former FIFA headquarters that the scandal-rocked soccer body still owns.
When the moment came that his beloved presidency ended, Blatter said he was with his daughter, Corinne, sharing a bottle of white from his home region.
She is at her father's side also on Saturday morning for two interviews, first, with a Swiss Sunday newspaper then the AP. There are just bottles of still and sparkling water on the table in a private dining room before they will take lunch at a restaurant that has become a Blatter salon in recent weeks.
The election was hailed as a potential new dawn for FIFA after nine months of turmoil since American and Swiss federal prosecutors revealed the scope of their investigations into corruption, which forced Blatter out with three years left in his fifth presidential term.
On the day after, there are clear blue skies but the crisply cold air on a hill overlooking Zurich left the 79-year-old Blatter feeling chill during several minutes spent outside with the newspaper photographer.
Back inside, he soon warms to the task of praising Infantino and explaining how he is at peace with life after running world soccer.
"It was important for FIFA to have a change," said Blatter who, until this week, was defiant about insisting on his right to be at the election. That hope ended two days earlier when the FIFA appeals committee cut his ban to just six years from eight for financial conflicts of interest.
Still, the start of FIFA's Infantino era could only recall parallels with Blatter.
They were born in neighboring towns, Visp and Brig, and rose to become president after being multi-lingual CEO-like top officials at, respectively, FIFA and UEFA.
"He is a young man, he is powerful, he has a lot of energy, and I am sure he will do the right job," Blatter said of Infantino, a former lawyer.
"It is a repetition of history, that is something," said Blatter, who previously traded barbs with Infantino as part of wider tensions between the two organizations. "If a majority of the 207 national associations so clearly indicated where they want to go then I can only say, 'Gianni, good luck and do it."'
He guessed the outcome after seeing the first-round result in Friday's four-candidate vote. Infantino led 88-85 over pre-poll favorite Sheikh Salman of Bahrain.
"This means that everybody is going for the winner for the second (round)," said Blatter, who got two of his five FIFA election wins when his opponent conceded after trailing in the first round.
The tactical shifts Blatter predicted lifted Infantino to a decisive 115-88 victory. He understood on Thursday that the sheikh's front-runner status through much of a four-month campaign might fade.
"I was not surprised with the result when I have known the day before that there was no longer the packages by the confederations," he said, referring to potential bloc votes. "Finally, it was the African votes that have made all the difference."
A key to Infantino's win was promising to more than double cash grants to the 209 member federations.
Asked about likely media reaction had he made similar campaign pledges, a smiling Blatter said: "They would have killed me. I was always criticized by saying, 'He buys votes."'
Blatter is "sure we have enough" money at FIFA to fund Infantino's promises from the $5 billion-plus income from each World Cup.
The only advice he offered was Infantino should guide his rebranded FIFA Council to hire a newly empowered CEO from outside Europe.
Blatter suggested "that would be wrong" to pick another European after 112 years of only men from the sport's mother continent doing the job, including himself from 1981-98.
Speaking gently, and with no hint of regret, he said of Infantino's leadership challenges: "This is his problem now."
Blatter's main problem is a criminal proceeding against him opened by Switzerland's attorney general last September for potential mismanagement of FIFA money as president. Charges could follow within several months.
On this day, Blatter has a different focus, claiming he has stopped being a workaholic, though he will pursue an appeal to clear his name at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
He speaks of his daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter, and his partner Linda Barras. After a health scare in November, he predicts being at 100 percent "in a few days."
"Love, tenderness, family — that's it," he said. "These are good assets. I have realized that. Now I have another approach to my life."
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