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Five nominees to succeed Sepp Blatter as the Fifa president have assembled in Florida to pitch for votes
It has taken place largely in the darkness, save for the odd glitzy press conference or unveiling of celebrity backers, and lacked the drama of dawning raids in five starring Zurich hotels or lurid tales of bribes and backhanders. But even by the standards of recent events in Fifa-land, the presidential race that will come to a conclusion in Zurich this month has been an often unedifying sight. The five men( and, unavoidably, they are all men) who have expended recent months criss-crossing the world, buzzwords about transparency and reform tumbling from their lips as they dispense glossy manifestos and funding pledges even as they scheme and plot behind the scenes, were on Thursday night heading for a hotel room in Miami to make their pitch to Concacafs 35 members.
Before he flew to Florida to join his competitors, the Jordanian former Fifa executive committee member and election outsider Prince Ali held a press conference in Geneva. In a continuing attempt to present himself as a genuine alternative to favourites Gianni Infantino( who has the official backing of Uefa) and the Bahraini Sheikh Salman Ebrahim al-Khalifa( who has the endorsement of the AFC and the Confederation of African Football) he declared: This election will determine whether a small group of powerful people will hold Fifa hostage.
He is right but there cannot be many who truly believed the election to replace the shamed, now banned, Sepp Blatterwould not lapsing into the time-honoured melange of vote-swapping, dirty trick, horse-trading and mud-slinging over minor infractions of electoral etiquette. As tours of renewal run, it attains the 1999 Tour de France( won by an artificially fuelled Lance Armstrong a year after the Festina scandal) look like a roaring success. Every single one of the five is compromised to a greater or lesser extent and collectively they cannot assist but stimulate the lawsuit for a truly independent reform process.
Most troubling is the frontrunner. Sheikh Salman was a Blatter loyalist levered into power by the now dishonored Fifa president. And, if his campaign has been any guide, a victory for the Bahraini will see Blatters Fifa growing back like bindweed before our eyes. With the public focus having moved on in accordance with the defenestration of Blatter and Michel Platini, there is a threat that the same old culture is simply morphing into a new shape.
Sheikh Salman has applied the same tactics as Blatter did. He has refused to conduct his campaign in the light and instead is a response to difficult questions with heavy-handed legal menaces. The one-time Bahrain FA president, who became AFC president with Blatters help in 2013, has pursued pacts with other confederations last week sealing a deal for the support of the Confederation of African Football( which will deliver many, but not all, of its 54 votes) with the interim Fifa president Issa Hayatou, a human who is hardly at the forefront of the reform movement. He has positioned himself to the 209 voters as the continuity nominee, wrap in the language of reform. I dont believe what is happening in the rest of the world is Fifas mistake. We cant blamed Fifa for all that happens in football in the rest of the world, he said early in the campaign. He later told al-Jazeera: The apprehends are to do with the confederations … nothing to do with Fifa.
This week, he told Associated Press it would be better for everyone if there was no election but instead a series of backroom deals that led to a coronation. If we go to election there will be losers and maybe sometimes you need to avoid that result, he said, betraying his notion of democracy, adding it would be best if we have a clear clue on who will be elected. Barely the spirit of reform and transparency that he promised in his manifesto.
More seriously for the man who would result Fifa into a brave new epoch are detailed allegations that he was involved in a committee responsible for identifying athletes involved in pro-democracy protests in 2011, who were later jailed. Despite denying these allegations, he has admitted the committee sat once and says it never conducted any formal business. Salman has also forcefully denied claims the Bahrain Football Association, which he headed at the time, penalise six clubs on political grounds in the wake of the uprising.
At the very least, as Prince Ali said on Thursday: The simple, basic fact of the matter is that person did not protect or stick up for his players at that time. Various other allegations swirling around his past conduct have been aggressively contested by his heavyweight London law firm.
The issue is not going away. Also on Thursday, the human-rights group Americans for Democracy& Human Right in Bahrain filed a complaint with the Swiss government alleging that Fifa had breached OECD guidelines by allowing Salman to stand. Fifas ad-hoc electoral committee looked into the human-rightsallegations as part of the integrity check process and cleared him. However it is understood that it did not conduct its own checks merely relying on media reports already in the public domain.
Then there is Sheikh Salmans closest challenger, Gianni Infantino. Ever since the smooth Swiss-Italian Uefa loyalist stepped into the expensive shoes of Platini when his boss was suspended then banned for eight years, rumors have swirled that he has a pact with Salman.
Most commonly, it was said that he had a deal to become secretary general under Salman if the Bahraini won. The rumours grew out of the fact that Salman has hitherto backed a Platini coronation and it was assumed negotiations had continued in the background despite Uefas decision to push Infantino forward. But recently Infantino has been ever more strenuous in his public refusals that there is any kind of bargain and has insisted he is in the race to win it. Behind the scenes, his team also insist there have been no talks with Salman during the campaign.
A spokesman on Thursday confirmed that 48 associations of the 209 had publicly backed Infantino, while Conmebols executive committee has also pledged its support which could mean a further 10 elections. Yet when the Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko backs Infantino one day while Vladimir Putin sits down with the King of Bahrain the next, and both talk opaquely of the need to get behind a single candidate, it is impossible to entirely park all cynicism. Both Salman and Infantino are playing percentages per, hedging their wagers, keeping balls in the air just as Blatter are applied to do.
As has been the case at every other Fifa election since the dawn of the Joao Havelange era, when he was levered into power with the assistance of Adidass Horst Dassler, it is Africa and the North and Central American confederation of Concacaf that have emerged as the swing states in Fifas curious version of a 209 -member democracy. Yes, that would be the same Concacaf whose past three chairwomen have been arrested by US feds on charges of money-laundering, corruption and other things. One of those men, Jeffrey Webb, was this week pictured on Twitter enjoying a suitably lavish 40 th birthday celebration for his wife as he remains under house arrest in their Georgia mansion.
A federation whose other alumni include former chairman Jack Warner, the long time rogue whose scheme to cream off monies entail for Haitian earthquake victims shocked even those who ha become inured to his antics, and Chuck Blazer, who siphoned millions in consultancy fees to fund a lavish Trump Towers lifestyle for himself, his cats and his parrots. Of course those gathering in Miami insist yet another page is being turned, even as they wait for Fifas ethics committee to unfreeze the $20 m in development fund that has been withheld from Concacaf and Conmebol since December. Bruce Blake, who succeeded Webb as head of the Cayman Islands FA, was this week insisting to local media that he had no idea what his predecessor was up to as funds were appropriated for personal gain.
Back in Geneva, the genial Prince Ali who lost out to Blatter in May despite the backing of Uefa, and then fell out with Platini before the Frenchmans fall from grace was closest to getting to the nub of the matter in backing independent oversight of Fifas reform process and calling for a wholesale culture change.
He also compellingly attained the point about Fifas mob culture. That down the years, throughout the Havelange and Blatter eras, growth money was drip fed according to loyalty, and perks such as committee positions and tournament hosting were handed out to those who maintained the status quo. It is impossible to see the parade of financial promises made by the majority of presidential candidates except through those eyes.
And yet some of Alis decisions have also seemed peculiar. He has called for Domenico Scala, who has assumed an increasingly powerful role as head of the ad-hoc electoral committee and the audit committee, to stand down because he is Swiss, like Infantino.
And he has railed against Scalas decision to suspend funding to Concacaf and Conmebol for the time being surely eminently sensible given the recent history of those confederations.
Whatever Ali says, and for all that this election is harder to call than previous ones given its volatility, he is unlikely to garner much more than 30 referendums. That might still be enough to place him in a kingmaker situation if it comes to a run-off between Infantino and Salman.
In another irony it is the man who spent longest in Blatters Fifa who has often come across most credibly during the campaign. It is also perhaps no coincidence that Jerome Champagne, who since being forced out in 2011 has spent much of his time sharpening long, sensible treatise on the future of video games, has little chance of winning. His Achilles heel remains his reluctance to criticise Blatter.
Tokyo Sexwale, the South African former anti-apartheid campaigner turned tycoon, has furthermore cut an unconvincing figure and may not even make it to the ballot paper. Various allegations about his business deals continue to vortex and he is now a depleted figure after failing to gain the backing of his own confederation. He, too, is tainted by past association with Blatter.
Then there is the role of the old deposed goat himself, still plotting in the background. Despite his dishevelled and incoherent appearance following his forbid in December he is still determined to have a say. Recent suggestions that he could somehow turn up at the Hallenstadion in Zurich for the extraordinary congress to decide his successor at the end of May, or even that he had not actually formally resigned, have been forcefully knocked down by Fifa sources.
Meanwhile, Fifas 400 personnel have looked on overseen by the acting secretary general Markus Kattner and lawyers from US firm Quinn Emanuel. Like the Fifa ethics committee and the electoral committee overseen by Scala, their motives and ultimate preferred chairperson remain a matter of conjecture.
All of which brings us back to the frontrunners and if it came down to a disheartening choice between Infantino and Salman it is the former who perhaps offers the best chance of bringing some measure of sanity to world football. Yet to many, even the idea that football insiders can solve the chronic, chaotic mess in Zurich, is an anathema.
Infantinos big press event at Wembley last month was an oddly hollow experience. The trappings celebrity endorsements including Luis Figo and Jose Mourinho, a glossy manifesto, the requisite reform proposals, a convincing manner are always present and correct.
Yet memories of Infantinos unquestioning is supportive of Platini remain fresh in the mind. He has struggled to convincingly answer questions on Uefas response to match-fixing in Turkey and Greece and is use 500,000 of the governing bodys fund to fund his campaign.
In any sane world it is hard to do much more than throw up your hands once again and declare a plague on all their houses. Especially as the parade of miscreants through US tribunals, and new revelations, continue. Yet football is too important to too many people and the funds a well-run Fifa could plough into the sport are too bountiful to do that.
At a bare minimum, the charade shows the absolute necessity for an element of independent, external oversight of whatever reforms emerge. Many, including Transparency International, are occupying a curious middle ground cautiously praising the long overdue reforms on the table( word limits, transparency of pay, separation of powers) that they are able to also be voted on at the congress, while publicly wondering if Fifas culture can ever change.
Unfortunately, the fact that the leading nominees are obsessing over the usual mix of politics, intrigue, dirty trick and barely credible promises should probably tell us all we need to know.
Meanwhile, the strong possibility exists the FBI and the Swiss attorney general, who began the process of bringing the house of cards crashing down last May with the arrests in the Baur au Lac lobby, may stage another intervention. Recent history proposed to there are plenty of spins to come.
Read more: www.theguardian.com