FIFA’s Presidential Elections… Nearly Done
Both the Republic of Ireland and Fifa go to the polls on Friday February 26th, and it is proving equally easy for observers of either or both elections to drown in cynicism. If possible, the most effective way to guarantee victory would be to change your name to “Wouldn’t piss on any of the above even if they were on fire.” The easiest line to take with the Fifa presidential election is that all five candidates are unprincipled wankers, with whom you wouldn’t trust the administration of your local non-league club, let alone world football’s governing body. But would such a simple view be a fair, all-encompassing verdict, capable of withstanding credible intellectual rigour? Would it give the reader a proper insight into the election campaign and process and comprehensively explain the relevant political machinations?
Admittedly, some candidates are more dismissible than others. The Tokyo Sex Whale’s manifesto was hardly detail-packed. But his campaign strategy rarely went beyond “I was once jailed with Nelson Mandela.” Its final publicity shots were taken at that jail, on South Africa’s Robben Island…as if Fifa delegates would be encouraged or comforted by pictures of a prison. Jerome Champagne’s electoral credentials were summarised, ridiculed and binned by a brief, memorable exchange on American TV station CBS’s 60 Minutes “newsmagazine program.” Dealing with Champagne’s association with disgraced Swiss gnome Sepp Blatter (Blatter’s deputy secretary-general from 2002-2005 and senior adviser for a decade…no biggie) presenter Steve Kroft suggested that “you were his eyes and ears.” Champagne replied, with trademark smugness: “Sometimes his mouth also.” Big mistake. Kroft, like all the best interviewers, asked the question on all viewers’ lips: “Not the nose? Did you not sniff out that anything was wrong?” Perhaps smelling his cooked goose, Champagne’s desperate denial was: “I was not involved in financial aspects.”
Bonne nuit, Monsieur Champagne.
Jordan’s Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein’s failed May 2015 presidential campaign and Congress speech added considerably to the number of “Zs” in Zurich and his 2016 campaign was a repeat performance until, after months of failing to grab requisite attention…or keep some observers awake, Ali changed tack (or, rather, had his ‘people’ change it…he is a prince, remember). Recognising fellow man of the people, with a lucrative sideline in Bahraini royalty, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa as the favourite, Ali joined in the considerable questioning of Salman’s much-discussed (by everyone but Salman) but still inadequately-denied links to human rights violations in his native Bahrain in 2011.
Salman’s line was that “the political side and government side” was “not a concern of mine” in 2011. Two weeks ago, after the then-Bahraini FA president Salman’s 94th attempt to avoid questions on his Arab Spring “contribution,” Ali replied: “If you are not going to take care of your own players and stick up for them that in itself is a problem.” Ali’s growth of a proverbial pair also led him to criticise alleged abuse(s) of Fifa patronage. “When you don’t go with the recognised powers in FIFA,” he declared, “development projects mysteriously stall; tournament hosting bids are suddenly compromised or withdrawn; national teams mysteriously face less favourable fixtures or even referees. All of these are effective ways to punish Member Associations that fail to demonstrate political loyalty.” This connected to his last-minute request for “transparent voting booths” at the election “to safeguard the full transparency of the electoral proceedings and to ensure that the vote is conducted in secret” and to avoid pressure being placed on national FA delegates to provide proof of their vote via a ballot paper “selfie.”
Mercifully, the Court of Arbitration for Sport will rule on the issue “no later than” tomorrow morning (Thursday). Fifa wouldn’t have ruled until Saturday. Equally mercifully, Ali didn’t use patronage abuse to excuse Jordan’s dismal performances at the 2015 Asian Cup Finals, surely as aware as anyone else that such excuses could be swatted away in five words: “Ray Wilkins was your manager.” He also noted “a problem where minutes are not published, and even when they are received they are not accurate,” an issue which briefly flickered last October when minute-taker Scott Burnett tweeted that he “was asked several times to misrepresent discussions” before disappearing again. Odd.
Ali will receive enough support to take Friday’s election to a second ballot. But only the second preferences of his voters will matter. Too little credibility. Way too late.
Gianni Infantino’s status as the most recognisable candidate might have garnered significant support among actual football supporters. He is both a shoo-in for the role of The Hood in any live-action remake of popular 1960s “supermarionation” show Thunderbirds (as much for his eyebrows as his shiny pate) and the “Champions and Europa League draw guy.” However, the actual electorate, especially outside Europe, would collectively struggle to find two f**ks to give about either. Criticism of Infantino’s actual record as Uefa Secretary-General has largely centred on his and Uefa’s silence as the president of Greek champions Olympiacos, Evangelos Marinakis, was investigated for his alleged leading role in a Greek football match-fixing ring. Among Infantino’s biggest critics was Matt Scott on the much-questioned Inside World Football (IWF) website. IWF’s election “news” has been clumsily pro-Salman, while Arsenal fan Scott’s criticism was simplistically derided as a campaign to reduce Arsenal’s Champions League group opposition after Olympiacos won 3-2 at the Emirates in September (I know, I was that simplistic derider).
However, Scott is a widely-respected columnist for many good reasons, notably his 2007-2010 stint on the Guardian newspaper’s Digger column, and his work with Guardian colleague David Conn to produce rare trustworthy insight into English club football’s increasingly murky finances. And his January 15th IWF article, Infantino has not got Uefa’s house in order, so why let him into Fifa House? justifiably spotlighted Uefa’s ethics and disciplinary procedures (“independent within the organisation, which is very different to independent from the organisation”). Despite Salman being favourite, his candidacy has plenty going against it, beyond the human rights issues and the democratic deficit of his royal status.
There was the, ahem, “Memorandum of Understanding” between Asia’s confederation (AFC) of which he is president and Africa’s equivalent (CAF). Questions on his electoral and financial past have increased from a trickle to a stream. Oh… and there’s his ludicrous 1970s semi-sunglasses. However, the game-changer arrived on January 25th, when he said he wanted Premier League Chief Executive and unreconstructed sexist Richard Scudamore as his secretary-general. Scudamore testified that the AFC president’s “vision for football development in Asia is both progressive and exciting (and will) help the game flourish…across the region” and that “the relationship (he) has fostered with the Premier League…can only be beneficial to the progress of football across Asia.” Alas, this was 2009 and the “progressive” was Qatari Mohamed Bin Hammam, subsequently banned for life from football. So Scudamore is arguably JUST the man for a job whose recent incumbents have included Blatter and Jerome Valcke, a man so mired in corruption that he has been fired from Fifa TWICE for unethical behaviour. From Fifa. For dodgy ethics. Twice.
Salman’s proposal of a role for Alex Ferguson makes some sense, even if Ferguson’s international football experience is thirty years past. However, Salman has been front and centre in an increasingly and appropriately grubby, integrity-free campaign. His “Memorandum of Understanding” with CAF, signed on January 15th, was designed to “(strengthen) co-operation between the two confederations.” Within hours, Prince Ali wrote to the AEC suggesting that presidential election bloc voting was to be one area of “strengthening co-operation.” Whilst claiming a history of “promoting cross-regional understanding,” Ali added: “Africa’s proud Football Associations are not for sale. Development resources belonging to national associations should not be used for political expediency. This apparent exploitation of confederation resources shows the world that the actions of individuals must stop bringing Fifa into disrepute.” Salman, predictably dismissed Ali’s “entirely inaccurate comments” in a statement a little pompously entitled An Un-necessary Spat between Fifa Candidates. And if Ali’s words were designed to curb Salman’s deal-seeking, they failed.
Indeed, Salman recently suggested that the election be tied up in a deal which redefined “one man, one vote.” As the Associated Press news agency’s Graham Dunbar tweeted, Salman’s “preferred version of Fifa democracy” was “one man, all the votes.” Another tweet suggested Salman “misunderstands idea of an election. But then, he’s royalty, so maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise.” “If we go to election there will be losers and maybe sometimes you need to avoid that result,” Salman noted, adding that it was best for FIFA if “we have a clear indication on who will be elected.” And, yes, he said all this out loud. Salman had previously discussed the concept with Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko (what “political interference?”), who claimed Russia would, as a European country, back the Uefa Executive Committee-endorsed Infantino but added: “I received a phone call from (Salman) and if there was a single candidate from Asia & Europe we would have all backed him up and had more chances.”
Mutko also hinted at a Russian change of mind to facilitate this, saying that “a real situation concerning the support will be laid out on the table” on February 17th when, he claimed to the surprise of many, every candidate would be in Moscow (they weren’t). And rumours have long circulated of a “dream” team of president Salman and secretary-general Infantino. Infantino dismissed the notion, saying he would stand “for the presidency” and “nothing else…until the end” and would “go fishing probably” if he lost. But, given that he said this at a Wembley campaign rally last month (attendant celebrity supporters including one Jose Mourinho esq), they could cynically be filed under “he would say that wouldn’t he?” The campaign story is not over. Salman recently said he expected “remarkable surprises” from “confederations that are presently expected to go for a competing candidate.” However, the tales of the unexpected have concerned his past.
Many appeared in a remarkable lecture by James M. Dorsey, author of the Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, on which you can find a lecture transcript, who styles himself as “one of (Salman’s) staunchest and most persistent critics.” Dorsey referenced allegations that Salman was the beneficiary of attempts to buy votes during his unsuccessful AFC presidential campaign in 2009 against Bin Hammam, and questioned Salman’s financial management of the confederation since becoming president in 2013. The Mail on Sunday newspaper’s Nick Harris ran with these issues last Sunday. Harris, in tandem with James Corbett and others, has been a key election commentator via the Sporting Intelligence website, to which I have no hesitation in directing you. And leading Fifa reform campaigner and New Fifa Now co-founder Damian Collins MP used the legal protection afforded by “parliamentary privilege” to be more…er…forthright about Dorsey’s vote-buying references (“cash-for-votes”, as parliamentary reports perhaps inevitably dubbed it). Salman’s people were quick with their denials. But they had to be. There’s an election coming up.
Rumours of more “well-timed” arrests of senior Fifa people reek of media mischief-making. Yet there are an increasing number of “proxy” delegates at Friday’s congress (a check on these proxies might be instructive). The phrase “spoilt for choice” does not spring readily to mind, then. Mainstream media outlets throughout the world have been producing nihilistic articles about Friday’s congress. Headlines such as Fifa’s future hangs in the balance (Daily Telegraph) and Fifa faces day of reckoning (Reuters) tell their own tale. And hard though I’ve tried, I cannot surpass such cynicism. Whoever wins, meaningful Fifa reform, as opposed to the cosmetic reform also being voted upon this week, will remain a semi-distant dream. And with the narrow, mostly financial, interests of the individual member associations so vital to each of the 209 votes, it should be virtually impossible to say how I would vote. Yet my vote, and that of any football fan is highly predictable. If there were a “wouldn’t p**s on any of the above, even if they were on fire” box, that’s exactly where my “X” would go.
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