The FIFA Presidential Election: Meet The New Boss, etc.

by | Feb 29, 2016

It was inconsiderate of Fifa to announce their presidential election result at a minute to the hour. Sky Sports News, perhaps among many other media outlets worldwide, were caught completely unawares. Sky had to violently cut short an ad-break so that a flustered, shouty Jim White could ruin the big moment, as a dark-haired woman flung her arms around Gianni Infantino in a gesture which suggested rather more than “you’ve picked up an extra ten votes in the second round.”

Maybe there was a time delay between the TV pictures and those available to White. If not, it was his worst TV moment since he nearly cried when announcing Rangers’ descent into administration just over three years ago (although, of course, some regard that as their “favourite” Jim White moment). Of course, the actual result caught most observers unawares. Participants, too. Sky Sports Paul Kelso tweeted: “One candidate’s camp had Salman 20 votes ahead of Infantino in first round.”

200% correctly predicted that the Tokyo Sex Whale wouldn’t get a vote, although not the “imaginative” way he managed it. But it wasn’t that brave a prediction and one suspects Sexwale himself knew it, hence his nerveless and at times entertaining speech to delegates immediately before the vote. Maybe, as we also said, Sexwale really was taking the piss all along, although if he actually left his withdrawal until the literal last minute of his speech to Congress delegates, the Fifa administrators printing the ballot papers might not have got the joke.

Fifteen minutes were allotted to each candidate, immediately after lunch, to make their final “push” for votes (“when delegates are at their most alert” tweeted one wag, sarcastically). Sexwale’s speech was a mixed bag. He felt able to joke that he wasn’t withdrawing “unlike some in Fifa withdrew money from bank accounts.” But he instantly went all “Fifa family” by hoping that the “friends” who had recently been indicted or banned could one day be seen “in a different light.” He did follow this up with “where the law…” which sounded like it would develop into a sensible caveat but, dismally, the delegates’ applause drowned him out.

His populist pleas for changing “playing fields from brown patches to green fields” was overshadowed by his plea for Fifa to stand united against external attacks (“media, police”). “There’s one organisation called ‘End Fifa Now’” he said incredulously. And inaccurately, if he was referring to NewFifaNow, who, on being called a “shadowy” organisation,” tweeted indignantly and accurately: “Shadowy my arse, we couldn’t be more in their face if we tried.” Sexwale told Congress of the birth of his new son, doubtless inspiring half-a-million dismal social media quips about late withdrawals and becoming a father at 62, although you’d be more saddened by that if it wasn’t for the strong feeling that Sexwale wishes he’d thought of the gag himself and stuck it in the speech. Nonetheless, he will have left many wondering why its occasional wit and vitality never reached his campaign.

The big fat zero against Jerome Champagne’s name after the second ballot was a sight for eyes made sore by reading his campaign’s frequent homilies to previous Fifa presidents. He tried to make a virtue of his experience in Fifa’s higher echelons but undermined himself at every turn by repeating that error. He said they had allowed “football to continue in a universal way” in an era of globalisation and “understood” that football could not remain “unicentric.” But the audience may not have understood concepts such as “elitisation” and “NBA-isation.” And one wonders how the translators coped. Then he quoted one “Caribbean FA” official’s claim that “without Fifa we would be just sitting on or couches watching Europe.” But this official almost certainly wasn’t from the Cayman Islands, whose unfinished football pitches are a definitive reminder of how Fifa abused their position. And when Champagne declared “I know what exactly what has been done correctly over the last 40 years,” you wondered how he didn’t know “exactly what has been done” incorrectly. “I never attacked the leaders,” he said. Which, of course, was his problem.

It was possible to feel sorry for Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein (in as much as a republican can feel sorry for a prince). His voters, all but four of whom moved to other candidates in the second ballot, were kingmakers after all. And judging by the tail-end of his campaign, he will currently be by far the least sore loser in Asia. His speech contained way too much hippy-drippy stuff about the “power” of football itself, as opposed to its administration. And it only improved when he, eventually, focussed on Fifa’s past failings. He was soundbite-heavy: “Football has thrived but Fifa has floundered,” and “football is carrying Fifa” (well…yes…that’s what the second “f” stands for). While the inclusion of “Rick Parry, former Chief Executive of the Premier League” on his proposed “oversight” committee wasn’t as popular as he’d hoped (“Rick Parry of Qatar’s ICSS” noted one observer, disapprovingly).

“You did not deserve backroom deals, empty promises, hidden agendas and vested interests,” he told congress. “Or human rights violations,” he added, jabbing his finger in time with his words, as one particular, unsmiling fellow-candidate, with shaded 1970s specs, squirmed in his seat. Ali’s Fifa future may well be intact after a speech laden with understated dignity, as was his post-election statement. “Our hearts and prayers are with you my dear prince we wish you all the luck, god bless you and be with you…you are really and truly my prince…love and loyalty to you and to our king, long live the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan,” read one comment on his website. Ali had a good day.

It was not possible to feel at all sorry for Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa. “I am one of you,” he told delegates, with about as much credibility as an Old Etonian claiming “we are all in this together.” Just as lacking in credibility was his claim to be speaking “from the heart.” One journalist, who witnessed Salman’s speech to his own Asian confederation, was unconvinced: “Salman is literally delivering the same speech from the “heart” as yesterday. He must have a wonderful memory.” Salman wasn’t helped by the conditions. Other speakers had to take gulps of water as their throat got dry. His was a dry speech anyway (and I don’t mean drily humorous).  But of all the words to get stuck in his throat, “transparency” was among the worst.

He also claimed to have the experience to guide Fifa through their problems. “Everybody understands what Asia went through,” he hoped, having succeeded the disgraced Mohamed Bin Hammam as Asian confederation president in 2013. And he claimed to be the financially responsible candidate. “I’m not ready to mortgage the future of Fifa for election purposes,” he said, leaving space for applause. It never came. Even though acting General Secretary Markus Kattner presented Fifa’s stark financial situation to Congress’s morning session (“we are $550m behind our goals…we have to manage costs carefully”), this was not what delegates wanted to hear. It was Salman’s fatal misjudgement.

Because the fact is that Infantino won the election on the day by promising money, with the highly-quotable “the money of Fifa is your money.” His was easily the best presented and thought-out speech, seamlessly transferring between languages and making directly relevant appeals to each one of his audiences in turn. But at its core was a blatant appeal to the basest, most populist instincts of the electorate as anyone could have made. “Straight from the Blatter playbook,” said more than one commentator. According to experienced journalist Keir Radnedge’s blog, Japanese delegate Kohzo Tashima admitted that: “At that moment in congress hall I really felt that something changed. I looked around and I believe that other delegates were affected by it.” Observers knew it too. The BBC’s Richard Conway tweeted: “That felt like a big speech from Infantino. Multiple languages, broad appeal, applause. Is it enough to sway the vote his way?”

When Infantino said his speech was “with my heart”, it sounded believable. Especially in Italian (“the language of my parents”). Swiss, French, Spanish and English (the latter echoing down the microphone) quickly followed. And some Arabic, although he translated that himself, as Fifa translators’ heads might otherwise have exploded. And he took delegates on a literal and linguistic world tour, addressing Francophone, Anglophone and Portuguese Africa in smooth succession. “From the Cape to Cairo…but the other way round,” he ventured, somehow getting away with a Cecil Rhodes reference. It was his day, alright.

He’d studied his audience thoroughly and knew which proverbial buttons to push. So when he occasionally registered on the cringe-o-meter (calling Oceania “the Ocean’s XI”, “we must get football back to Fifa and Fifa back to football”) he was forgiven. And he brutally dismissed Salman’s financial criticisms: “When I speak about figures, I know what I speak about. When I’ve been managing UEFA the revenues have gone up nearly three times, in a time of financial crisis.” Up yours, Salman, in any language. It was a masterclass in last-minute vote-winning… and more. Almost worth seeking out on Fifa TV or You Tube. Almost. Was it “enough to sway the vote his way?” as Conway asked. Yes, it was. And again, worldwide observers knew it. After the first ballot, “Infantino 88” quickly trended on Twitter, the significance of the figure not lost on the Twitterati.

The Confederations’ bloc votes had, Uefa apart, failed to hold up, the Caribbean Football Union in particular reacting against their past freedom to vote the way Jack Warner told them. And the figures begged the question as to whether South Sudan had backed Infantino, as they originally announced before the African confederation told them they actually “preferred” Salman. Some pundits were still concerned that the controversial exclusions of Kuwait and Indonesia from the election (one definite, one almost definite, Salman vote) might prove decisive. As it was, Ali’s 27 votes and Champagne’s seven largely went one way, as the delegates voted a second time with a new-found urgency which suggested they didn’t want a third time (“they’ve rattled through it in one hour 20 minutes, planes to catch” – Kelso). And Salman only picked up three of these, to Infantino’s 27. So for all the globalisation talk, Fifa still awaits its first non-European or South American president. Salman actually smiled, too, looking more gracious in defeat than at any stage during the campaign.

The result has been greeted with guarded optimism but more relief that Salman lost. English FA chairman Greg Dyke even suggested that England “will maybe go for (the) 2030 (World Cup),” not that such things will be any of his business after this coming June. However, the words of Infantino’s gnomic Swiss predecessor, who mercifully stayed away from congress, were a timely reminder that little vital has changed yet. “He has all the qualities to continue my work,” said the delusional former administrator, out loud. And so there an end to the electioneering… just as I’d learned Prince Ali’s and Sheikh Salman’s full names off-by-heart too. However, the cliché “the work has only just begun” is true.

Infantino has made billion-dollar promises on behalf of an organisation losing hundreds of millions of dollars because of recent events.  And in many other respects, nothing has changed. Twenty-two countries voted against the minimal reforms put before them. And two countries voted against removing Canover Watson from Fifa’s Audit and Compliance Committee, despite the problems he’d have attending future meetings due to his recent sentencing to seven years in prison. And while there were pro- and anti-Salman protestors outside the Congress Hall, there were also anti-Infantino protests, over Uefa’s lack of action on various match-fixing scandals in Greece and Turkey. Paul Kelso summed up the task ahead: “Infantino is an affable, engaging Swiss. He just needs to prove he’s a different kind of affable, multi-lingual Swiss to his predecessor.” And that very much remains to be seen.

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