Where The FIFA Presidential Race Was Won and Lost
The 2015 FIFA Presidential election played out like a true political election, or maybe something more closely resembling House of Cards.
We had a last-minute scandal, as 14 people were arrested in connection with an American investigation into crimes that sound more Sopranos than soccer. Much to the dismay of many, Sepp Blatter was not among those led away in cuffs, but he has a history of being placed very close to the flame without ever being burned.
We’ve had the possibility of a debate, and an incumbent not wishing to debate their merits, much like David Cameron in the UK General Election. Candidates have fallen by the wayside, leaving a two horse race at the end as we commonly see in the party system most nations govern with.
The stage was set, at the 56th FIFA Congress in Zürich, as the 209 member nations gathered to submit their votes. Before the lengthy voting process, both Sepp Blatter and Prince Ali bin Hussein addressed their colleagues in a final bid to win votes. The Jordanian Prince, president of the Jordanian Football Association, made a speech that was a lot like that of Barack Obama in 2008. A vow for change, not just change dictated by a leader but through a community effort. AFC’s FIFA Vice-President stated his desire for transparency in both finance and governance as the doors to FIFA House would be pried open for the benefit of all. The Prince gave a relatively short address, requiring only 10 of his allotted 15 minutes, including a jab at his opponent. Ali declared that as FIFA President, everything that happened in the organization would ultimately fall on his shoulders; a far cry from Blatter’s deflection each time racism or bribery has been brought up.
The reigning FIFA President gave quite the opposite of the determination that Ali displayed. No doubt, years of accusation have worn down the 79-year-old Swiss. His opening statement was not translated from French, the primary language of the sport’s governing body. The remainder came across as a plea to retain an ‘experienced leader’. Blatter, in his 17th year as president, pledged to ‘protect this house from racism, match manipulation, doping and violence’. My initial thought was that sexism and homophobia were big omissions, particularly with a challenger that has a history of fighting for the women’s game, from one of the more progressive Arab nations that legally allow same-sex relations. One of the delegates from Tahiti actually fell asleep in the midst of Sepp’s repeated plea to ‘stay with you, continue with you’.
The first round of voting got underway at approximately 7pm CET. Blatter would require a two thirds majority to avoid a second round. Hussein’s camp believed they had 106 votes going into the Congress. With Sepp Blatter gaining 133 votes to Prince Ali’s 73, Ali opted to concede the election rather than go through the formality of the second round of voting. This in itself was a minor victory for change, 73 people voted against Blatter and 3 abstained. This was a statement that a number of the game’s bigger associations and confederations have grown tired with the direction FIFA has been taken.
On the whole, the public perception of this election has come down to ‘the corrupt guy’ vs ‘the new guy’, but what did the delegates actually take into consideration? In the time-honoured tradition of combat sports, we’ll start with the challenger.
Prince Ali bin Hussein is President of the JFA, the West Asian Football Federation and the Asian Football Confederation’s representative on the FIFA Executive Committee. Under his tenure, Jordan maintains four professional men’s divisions, two women’s divisions, two cup competitions, a futsal league and four formal youth tournaments between U14 and U20. Ali championed the repeal of the FIFA ban on the hijab in women’s football, to allow Muslim players to uphold their religious belief whilst playing the game. The campaign manifesto promised changed but without much detail. A fund for coaching development, similar support as player associations offer, increased investment in small-sided, indoor, beach soccer and futsal. More attention paid to the women’s and youth tournaments. A review of the FIFA rankings and a progressive approach to technology in football. These are truly pleasing to see, albeit without anything more than an outline.
Where Ali did elaborate was how he would reform governance, his World Cup plans and how to aid developing nations. The Financial Assistance Payments to member associations has remained at $250k since 1998, Prince Ali had pledged to raise that to $1m every year without fail, and for that amount to be reviewed after each World Cup, to ensure it rises in line with increased income. Extra revenue would be generated by an online TV platform as well as the usual streams of income. Hussein also laid out a plan to expand the World Cup, preferably from 2018 onwards, to 36 teams. UEFA would keep their 13 spots, South America would no longer have a play-off for their 5th spot, Oceana would get a guaranteed spot and the remaining confederations would get an extra spot each. This would leave CONCACAF and CAF with the lone play-off.
He also sought to formalise the continental rotation of the World Cup that we have seen in place since 2010, and create a committee that would take a defined role in governing the game where Sepp Blatter has retained most of the power for himself. World Cup bids would incorporate an assessment of potential human rights violations and FIFA-observed safeguards against slave labour. FIFA would establish regional offices within confederations to ensure FIFA-assistance is easily accessible in club v country and association v government disputes, as well as to improve FIFA’s ability for project deliverance. Probably the big thing that people would cheer for, is the pledge to publish the Garcia Review of the awarding process for the 2018 and 2022 FIFA World Cups.
On to our reigning champion, Joseph Blatter. The 79-year-old won a fifth term as FIFA President. With 17 years as president, in addition to a further 23 years with football’s governing body, Blatter had previously served as a club president, and took charge of an ice hockey league, in his native Switzerland. In addition to his FIFA post, Sepp Blatter is also an International Olympic Committee and World Anti-Doping Agency executive. He has unanimous support in Africa and Asia after giving the two continents their first World Cups, and returning to Asia in 2022. FIFA’s bank balance has grown to over $1.5bn under his leadership, whilst donating $2bn to charity in this time. Unfortunately, the President is known more for controversy than for his achievements.
Some may cite a twisted sense of humour, as Blatter has made numerous cringeworthy statements over the years. From his claim that Latin Americans would applaud John Terry over his affair with the partner of team mate Wayne Bridge, to his belief that the women’s game would be more popular if they wore tighter shorts. Even when questioned about awarding a World Cup to a nation that oppresses the LGBT communities, his response was "I would say they should refrain from any sexual activities”.
Sepp’s blunders in the spotlight even included interrupting the minutes silence for Nelson Mandela at the 2014 World Cup, and his continual claim that he won’t stand for election again. Realistically he would happily stand in 2019 at the age of 83, in 2023 as an 87 year old, and so on. Blatter refused to publish a manifesto for the coming term, claiming that his experience is all the manifesto he needs. A bullish statement in a time where corruption has reared its ugly head close to his office, but perhaps just safe in the knowledge that AFC and CAF votes would hand him the election with ease.
The damaging thing for Sepp Blatter is just how close he has been to all of the allegations and prosecutions that have surfaced even before his first term. His predecessor, João Havelange, along with two ExCo members, was found guilty of accepting bribes in the midst of the scandal involving a closely associated sports marketing firm, ISL. ISL paid over $40m to Havelange and Ricardo Teixeira over a period of 8 years. The firm would eventually go bankrupt with debts of over $150m, despite holding marketing rights for FIFA, the IOC and IAAF. Blatter was never investigated as he was believed not to be aware of these bribes.
Even Sepp Blatter’s 1998 victory over UEFA president, Lennart Johansson, was steeped in controversy after an undercover investigation by UK newspapers recorded Farra Ado, vice-president of CAF and president of the Somali Football Federation, claiming to have been offered $100,000 to vote for Blatter. His 2011 victory saw a path cleared for him by the FIFA Ethics Committee, who chose a very convenient time to investigate lone-challenger, and former Blatter ally, Mohammed bin Hammam. Two lifetime bans were handed to bin Hammam, along with Jack Warner and Chuck Blazer. Once again, corruption close to Blatter’s office is investigated and he is seemingly squeaky clean. The FBI and Department of Justice are comparing the use of bribes to organised crime.
To revisit that House of Cards reference, the Netflix show saw Frank Underwood fix votes, neutralise threats, impose his will upon the US as both President and underling alike, and plenty of wrong-doing in between; all while giving a completely honest appearance.
The overall message going into this vote was change vs the status quo. The response, we’re happy as we are.
The old adage of football associations being run by old men in suits, out of touch from the people that pay their salaries would appear to be correct. Surely an 83-year-old Sepp Blatter will not be a viable option next time around, and the movement for change can build momentum to give FIFA its credibility once again.
FIFA's sponsors will dictate the pace for reform, and UEFA delegates will need to distance themselves from their wish for a Euro-centric system that drove Asian and African delegates into Blatter's arms.