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London Evening Standard

The first thing greeting passengers arriving at Zurich airport is a sign reading “Fifa Congress: Limousine Service”.

When I ask one of the two young ladies holding up the placard who is entitled to ride in the limos she tells me they are reserved for the high officials who run world football.

The US Justice Department may have charged high Fifa officials with racketeering, and even Zurich taxi drivers talk of its bosses as “mafiosi”, but the hierarchy is entitled to the perks of office. Yet the corruption scandal that has engulfed the organisation means that for many in it the landscape has changed. The mood is so subdued it is hard to believe Fifa is even in town.

The shadow of last May’s Congress lies heavily. Just before delegates gathered to re-elect Sepp Blatter for a fifth term, Swiss police, at the instigation of the US Justice Department, raided hotels at dawn and arrested several high-ranking officials on charges of corruption. The fallout saw Blatter go, leading to this week’s extraordinary Congress to select a successor.

Such is the fear that the FBI action generated that there has been talk that some delegates — with reason to fear an early-morning knock on their door — will not turn up tomorrow and instead authorise a proxy to vote.

At previous Congresses, Fifa took over Zurich, with parties thrown by sponsors eager to cultivate officials from round the world. This time, says Isha Johansen, president of the Sierra Leone Football Association and one of only two female football presidents: “There have been no parties. That sense of boisterous fun is not there. The mood is sombre and reflective.”

No continent seems in a more reflective mood than Africa. It could well decide the election. Sheikh Salman of Bahrain has been made the favourite because he claims to combine his Asian base with solid African support.

But if Gianni Infantino of Uefa can eat into Salman’s African base, he could sneak it. Salman, Infantino, and other candidates, Prince Ali of Jordan, Jerome Champagne and Tokyo Sexwale, have all wooed the African delegations.

Since 1998, Fifa has given the impression of being an organisation that often holds elections but has never believed in democracy, electing Blatter five times, twice unanimously.

This system’s impact is evident in the case of Tokyo Sexwale. He shared a cell with Nelson Mandela for 13 years but this election has proved so difficult that, according to one African delegate, Sexwale felt his big mistake was to stand and that he did not understand Fifa.

This sums up Fifa. A man can survive Robben Island but still struggle with a Fifa presidential campaign.

      

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