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If FIFA president Sepp Blatter were a Middle East dictator

FIFA President Sepp Blatter resigns
FIFA President Sepp Blatter resigns
Valeriano Di Domenico/Getty/AFP

FIFA, the governing body of international soccer, certainly bears some of the hallmarks of a Middle Eastern dictatorship. It is cozy with authoritarian leaders, riven by corruption, and accepting of horrific human rights abuses; controls a coveted resource; and even has a close relationship with Moscow. On Tuesday, another parallel emerged: its powerful, charismatic strongman leader has stepped down in an abrupt resignation. It's hard not to imagine — how would this FIFA story look if it did not just resemble, but actually was, a Middle Eastern dictatorship?

ZURICH — After years in power, FIFA's seemingly invulnerable leader, President and self-proclaimed "Guide of the Revolution" Sepp Blatter, has stepped down. Shortly after the announcement, Blatter was said to have boarded his private plane to fly to Saudi Arabia, which had quietly granted him asylum.

"The people demand the downfall of the regime," flag-waving young soccer fans could be heard shouting in the streets after days of clashes with FIFA security forces.

The news came when FIFA's shadowy executive committee seized state TV, announcing that Blatter had resigned. The short broadcast stated that the 10-member committee would "safeguard FIFA on behalf of the people" until elections for a replacement could be held. A date for elections was not set.

Washington-based think tanks warned that Islamists could fill the void left by Blatter's resignation.

"Blatter, for all his faults, was an important friend of the United States in combating soccer extremists," cautioned one analyst. He added that Blatter had been a close ally of Israel, resisting popular sentiment against the Jewish state.

The State Department declined to label Blatter's downfall as a coup; experts say such a designation would complicate US military aid to FIFA. The White House said it had placed the aid "under review" pending elections.

It was not immediately clear who would replace Blatter. A midlevel member of FIFA's executive committee, who had trained at the US Army War College in the 1990s and has personal ties to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, is the Americans' clear favorite. He is thought to hold moderate views and good relations with both the US and Israel.

Though international soccer is an ancient culture with cherished traditions, it has been riven by sectarianism and growing extremism in recent years. Some experts say the oil-rich nations of the Persian Gulf, such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, have been quietly funding preferred soccer proxies, exacerbating tensions.

A growing strain of violent extremism within soccer, known as "football hooliganism," has led Fox News and some American pundits, such as HBO host Bill Maher, to label soccer as inherently violent.

"We are at a holy war with soccer, whether the president wants to admit it or not," Bill O'Reilly said on his Monday evening broadcast, demanding immediate airstrikes on FIFA's Swiss headquarters.

The Obama administration has struggled to develop a strategy for the global soccer crisis, analysts say, and has only partially funded programs to arm soccer moderates within FIFA.

"The president has a simple strategy when it comes to FIFA: don't do stupid things," Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser, told reporters. "Some Republicans are calling for troops on the ground in Zurich, but they forget that it was Bush's 2003 war with FIFA that got us into this mess in the first place."

Republican presidential contenders have called for seizing the moment to install an American football coach as FIFA's new leader, thus fulfilling a dream long held by neoconservatives to instill US football values and transform the sport from within.

"It's time for a leader who can bring American values to a world that badly needs our leadership," Sen. Lindsey Graham told reporters.