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FIFA’s presidential candidates are a bland bunch. They should be calling for revolutionary change, argues Mihir Bose
Imagine an election which has some of the elements of the US primary race but is in many ways more bottled up than the election of board of directors of a well-run company.
That is exactly what the election for the FIFA President to succeed Sepp Blatter is turning out to be. I have spent the last two days in Zurich and this city of bankers has never seen anything like this.
FIFA Congresses have always been football’s equivalent of the barons of the medieval age meeting for a joust. The 209 member countries that make up FIFA herd together under the various continental confederations. Each of the confederations have their own hotels dotted round the main conference centre, their flags fly outside the hotels, and the atmosphere is very much like the barons pitching tents round the jousting field.
In the days leading up to the Congress the confederations have their own mini congresses to agree their strategy before the main congress jousting starts, sponsors gather round throwing lavish parties for the men, and they are overwhelmingly men, who consider themselves the lords of the football universe.
However the fall-out from the last congress in May when, two days before the election, the Swiss police at the request of the US Justice Department arrived at dawn at the Zurich hotel where the top brass of FIFA were staying and carted them away on charges of corruption, has meant that the old FIFA was effectively demolished. Sepp Blatter, who got re-elected in May for a fifth time, has gone, banned from football for six years. There will be a new President and for the first time in FIFA history five candidates are standing. What is more, not all the barons of football are in town with some worried that they may get an early morning knock on the door from the FBI. This is not an unreasonable fear given the FBI consider FIFA to be a mafia style operation which it has made its mission to purge if not destroy.
“None of them are prepared to say that FIFA is not fit for purpose”
Against such a background you would expect one of the candidates to imitate Trump, declare a plague on everyone and that he is the only candidate who can make FIFA great again. But there is no such candidate and in the curious way FIFA is run there cannot be. All the candidates running in the election promise reform but none of them are prepared to say that FIFA is not fit for purpose and needs revolutionary change. They cannot because they were all in one way or another part of the old FIFA that the Americans exploded last May. The only one who could be said to be not part of it is Tokyo Sexwale who shared a prison cell with Nelson Mandela but his decision to stand seems more and more bizarre, he is a stranger to many delegates including some from Africa, and has clearly found fighting for the FIFA Presidency much harder work than fighting apartheid.
The rest are more like executives of a company who just want to get on the board, consider the company not only worth preserving but having many good products and are really only talking about tinkering at the edges. Also in order to get shareholders to vote for them they are offering to increase dividend payments and also make sure shareholders get more cash back. And it is this that makes this election so amazing.
So while we have had media scrums at the hotels where the FIFA delegates are gathered that match what we have seen in US primary elections, the pronouncements that are made are couched in the most bland language as if the candidates are worried that if they sound too radical the voters who were nearly all devoted supporters of Blatter and his discredited regime will get scared and not vote for them.
And all this means that while the election will undoubtedly see a new man at the helm of world football and there could even be a non-white President of FIFA for the first time in its 112 year history. But it is hard to see how there can be real fundamental change, the sort of change that can convince the world, or more particularly the American Justice Department, that FIFA is no longer a criminal organisation with “corruption that is rampant systematic and deep rooted”, in the words of Loretta Lynch, US Attorney General, and can only be dealt with by using laws designed for racketeering and mafia.
I hope I am proved wrong but my feeling is this election will see more of the same, the front office personnel changes, but the old FIFA remains.