FIFA’s presidential elections, so often a foregone conclusion, might actually provide some interest this time around. Sepp Blatter has been in control of the world’s largest organisation (I found out recently that FIFA has more members than the UN) since 1998, and it would appear that from the outset, his tenure has been synonymous with impropriety. It is a sad reflection on the world of football that he has survived the almost constant accusations of corruption that have stained FIFA’s reputation.
Of the candidates standing against Blatter, beyond Luis Figo, I cannot say that I know anything about them. It seems likely, though, that even if Blatter is deposed, it will take time for the culture of FIFA to become more transparent. His opponents, Prince Ali bin Al-Hussein of Jordan, and Vice-President of FIFA for Asia, has apparently been vocal in his criticism of Blatter. Michael van Praag, the chairman of the Dutch FA (KNVB), has similarly been critical of Blatter’s actions. Luis Figo, surely the best known of the candidates, has criticised FIFA in general.
To be honest, while I hope that Blatter is removed, I am wary of expecting instant changes to FIFA. They have bled football dry, putting revenue protection as their highest priority. The stories from the 2010 World Cup in South Africa about the prosecutions of vendors selling merchandise without giving FIFA their cut sickened me, especially since FIFA made an obscene amount of tax-free money from the event. Brazil’s World Cup had similar incidents.
Figo has said that he wants to extend the World Cup to 40 or 48 teams, with the extra teams coming from outside Europe. I’m happy with that, because the World Cup is very Euro-centric. He also wants to revert to the old offside rule, getting rid of the “interfering with play” thing. For me, this is an excellent idea. I presume the rule was changed in the first place to give strikers more freedom and allow more goals, but the problem is how to decide whether someone is interfering with play? There’s a Bill Shankly quote which I quite like: “If a player isn’t interfering with play or seeking to gain an advantage, he should be.” My concern is that any player on the pitch is interfering with play. Defenders will alter their position, as will goalkeepers, based on the position of opposition players around them, so presumably, all players are interfering with play all the time.
I fear that an account of the other candidates’ policies will be harder to come by. Figo has a definite advantage in one respect: everyone in football has heard of Luis Figo.
A cursory sweep of the internet located Michael van Praag’s speech at the launching of his candidacy. He, like Figo, advocates a larger World Cup. He also said he would fight the “scourge of match-fixing,” which might well be a bigger problem than any of us realise, and he would keep Blatter on as an advisor. This is despite saying that Blatter’s continued role as leader of the football family (as Blatter liked to call it, somewhat reinforcing his image as Don Blatter of the Swiss Cosa Nostra) is untenable because his face is irrevocably linked with the tarnished image FIFA has enjoyed in recent years. I’m not sure that will go down well with the legions of football fans who want Blatter out, but given the manner of FIFA elections, allowing Blatter to cling to some sort of power might swing some votes in van Praag’s favour.
Prince Ali of Jordan has called for a public debate before the vote, which in principle is a decent idea. I haven’t been able to find any specific manifesto of his, but he has talked about cleaning up FIFA (which all of the candidates have alluded to) as well as “reversing the pyramid”: FIFA is there to serve the game, he says, “not to dictate how things are done…”. A more democratic system would be preferable, if that is what he is proposing.
What Blatter proposes to do seems largely irrelevant. The man flip flops more often than a certain item of summer footwear. He opposed technological aids in decision-making, and then rapidly changed his mind after the embarrassing decision not to award Frank Lampard a crucial goal in a crucial World Cup match against Germany. What’s that? NO I HAVEN’T GOT OVER IT!! <Ahem> Sorry about that. There are some things which will never heal.
This is a man who said that racial discrimination on the pitch should be sorted out with a handshake. He said that women playing football should wear tighter shorts. He backed Qatar’s anti-homosexuality laws, after criticisms of FIFA’s choice of World Cup host in 2022, saying that gays should refrain from sexual activity while in Qatar. He has presided over the most blatantly corrupt organisation in the world (more or less), stood unopposed at the last election, which makes a mockery of the whole process, and yet he still wants to cling to power. What is also worrying is that the report into the alleged corruption of Qatar’s World Cup bid, first described as a whitewash by its author, who has since stepped down, now seems to have disappeared.
If Blatter remains in place, serious questions have to be asked. FIFA cannot continue in this form. Things need to change. After the debacle of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding process, it was mooted that some national Football Associations might leave FIFA. If Blatter does stay in charge, leaving FIFA might be the only way to force change: setting up a rival organisation, with rival tournaments, and, potentially, a more progressive stance on ethics. This is not a step to be taken lightly, though. Already, the president of the German FA has threatened that UEFA and its 54 members could leave FIFA if Michael Garcia’s report on World Cup corruption is not made available in full. Neither have happened. FIFA says it will publish a redacted version to protect witnesses, but not until investigations into several people have been completed. The bluff has been called. I wonder whether, behind the scenes, Michel Platini and his associates are considering following up their threat?
by James Newbury