Sepp Blatter wants his watches back.
Blatter, the former president of FIFA whose yearslong leadership of soccer’s global governing body ended in scandal, also wants some pension payments and for his former employer to clear his name. But his current focus is a strangely personal dispute over the fate of dozens of luxury watches that he said he was unable to retrieve from FIFA headquarters after he was forced out of the organization in 2015.
Blatter, 83, told The New York Times in an interview Wednesday that he had grown so frustrated with FIFA’s failure to return as many as 80 watches — from brands like Patek Philippe, IWC and Omega — that he was including them in a lawsuit he plans to file against the organization that also will include demands for pension payments and clarification about his compensation arrangements to show that “I am not a thief.”
Blatter is serving a six-year ban from soccer, a sad denouement to an association with FIFA that dated back 41 years before he was ousted in the aftermath of a sweeping corruption scandal.
The problem, Blatter said, is that since the day he was suspended by FIFA, in October 2015, he has been unable to retrieve his personal belongings, notably an extensive watch collection built over decades — dating to the days he worked for the Swiss watchmaker Longines. Blatter said in hindsight that he should have kept the watches at his apartment in Zurich, but that as a single man, he believed they would be safer at FIFA’s well-guarded headquarters.
Last year, after a back and forth with FIFA’s legal department and the organization’s secretary general, Fatma Samoura, Blatter was reunited with 120 timepieces, though not what he described as his “high technology collection.” The fight over those watches continues. Blatter said they have high sentimental and monetary value; each watch, he estimated, is worth $5,000 to $20,000 — figures that would value the collection at $400,000, but likely much more.
“This is a question of respect, and I’ve reached the end of my temper,” said Blatter, who continues to live in an apartment that he rents from FIFA. “I think it’s not too much to ask to give me back personal belongings.”
Blatter at the 2015 FIFA Congress. “For me,” he said of his fight for his watch collection, “this is really personal.”CreditAlexander Hassenstein/FIFA, via Getty Images
FIFA’s deputy secretary general, Alasdair Bell, said Blatter was provided with all the watches he had requested and had even signed a receipt, before surprising the organization months later claiming some items were missing.
“We did what was asked of us,” he said. As for the pension, Bell added, Blatter receives “what he’s legally entitled to.”
He added, “If he files a claim, obviously we’ll defend any claims on the basis we act in conformity of our legal obligations, including with Mr. Blatter.”
Blatter’s watches are not the only belongings of ousted officials that have remained at FIFA. A vintage Mercedes owned by Chuck Blazer, the corrupt former American official whose testimony helped the Justice Department secure prosecutions against dozens of his former associates, remains in its parking space in FIFA’s subterranean garage. Blazer died in 2017, four years after secretly pleading guilty to racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering and agreeing to help investigators.
Luxury watches have had a strangely outsize role within soccer circles, bringing down officials and leading to embarrassing revelations. In 2014, for example, FIFA struggled to persuade members to return dozens of $26,000 wristwatches distributed to them by the organizers of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. And after he was arrested in the 2015 scandal, one former FIFA official secured his release from custody, in part, by turning over 11 watches and his wife’s wedding ring.
Just last month, Reinhard Grindel, the president of Germany’s soccer federation and a member of FIFA’s governing council, was forced to resign after it was revealed he had accepted a designer watch from a Ukrainian colleague.
Blatter once even invoked the slogan of his former watchmaker employer to chastise the news media during a fiery 2011 news conference. Snapping back at one question, Blatter lectured the reporter who asked it with the line, “elegance is an attitude,” a motto used by Longines since 1999.
Years after his ouster, Blatter continues to feel wronged by events at FIFA. He insisted the men he grew to know intimately over decades in soccer, including some he had agreements with over television contracts, must have engaged in dishonest conduct without his knowledge, and far from FIFA’s headquarters. And he claimed that he never received the $12 million bonus he was secretly promised in his last employment contract. He wants FIFA to clear up the matter, saying the revelation that he arranged for a multimillion-dollar payday during FIFA’s darkest hour represents a stain on his character.
Blatter said he would not pursue the $12 million, however, if FIFA returned the rest of his watches. “For me this is really personal,” he said.
But he is still seeking pension payments that were forced through by members of the executive committee — including several that ended up being charged in the United States indictments — that allow for retired officials to continue to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars for what at the time amounted to a few days of work a year.
Blatter earned tens of millions of dollars at FIFA, and he says he continues to live comfortably. He does not need the money, he insisted, but should receive what he is entitled to. According to FIFA’s statutes at the time, the president was not entitled to pension benefits established for members of the executive committee. As a permanent employee of FIFA, Blatter had separate pension arrangements.
Much of Blatter’s frustration is rooted in what he perceives as disrespectful treatment from FIFA; he insisted that despite the corruption scandal, he left FIFA in a healthy state and should be recognized for that.
“I’m not going to die about it,” he said of the money, “but I want to die in dignity, and I want them to say I was not a thief in FIFA.”
But first, he wants his watches.