The race to replace outgoing president Sepp Blatter symbolizes all that is broken in FIFA.
In short, the race is a complete sham. It’s a hustle meant to look vaguely democratic—insofar as it’s called an election—but the process is basically a bunch of undemocratically “elected” dudes meeting behind closed doors to talk about what they can do to satisfy each other’s needs, purportedly for the good of the game. And to make matters worse, the election is shaping up to be particularly farcical because it’s taking place under the guise of reform, despite proceeding in the same seedy manner that birthed Blatter’s five electoral victories.
Most things written about FIFA’s descent into the lower depths of hell presupposes that Blatter is so integral to FIFA’s rot that getting rid of him must be an integral part of the solution, despite no one really articulating exactly what he’s done wrong. Presiding over a toxic organization plagued with scandal is reason enough to usher in a replacement, it seems, regardless of who that might be. It’s why a healthy number of national federations lined up behind Jordan’s Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, Blatter’s only challenger in the May 2015 presidential election, and then abandoned him after he was unable to slay the king on short notice. It’s “let’s overthrow Saddam Hussein and then blindly hope that the chips fall into place” logic.
But FIFA’s issues are and have always been much bigger than the Swiss leader, or any other stained FIFA member, for that matter.
At the heart of FIFA’s history of sordid transgressions is a more fundamental problem: the absence of transparency. One of the most damning recent episodes exemplifying FIFA’s opacity centers around the December 2010 vote that resulted in Russia and Qatar winning the right to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, respectively. Twenty-two FIFA executive committee members submitted secret ballots to select the two nations as hosts, after their bellies were sufficiently full from the fine wine and dining so graciously offered by bidding nations. Since that vote, 15 of the 22 committee members have faced accusations of corruption. Thirteen of the 22 are no longer on the committee. Included among the remaining nine: Blatter, his vice president, Confederation of African Football president Issa Hayatou, UEFA president Michel Platini, and Spain’s Angel Maria Villar Llona, none of whom are strangers to allegations of shenanigans.
All of which suggests that FIFA’s problem isn’t just about shady individuals and bidding processes; it’s more fundamentally about the lack of transparency in how business is conducted, specifically the difficulty in determining how decisions are made. It’s what happens when a group of men, shielded by a self-regulating body, rarely have to answer to anyone.
The race to crown the next FIFA president is just the latest symptom of the transparency void, although, hilariously, you won’t hear any of the candidates mention it.
The candidates who’ve announced their intention to run, since Blatter stepped down on June 2, include France’s Platini, South Korea’s Chung Moon-Joon, Jordan’s Prince Ali, Trinidad and Tobago’s David Nakhid, Nigeria’s Segun Odegbami, Liberia’s Musa Bility, Brazilian legend Zico, and the man with the godly hand, Diego Maradona. That’s three current or former FIFA vice presidents/executive committee members, a national soccer federation president, two people with “played international soccer” as the standout entry on their resumes, a Brazilian sporting icon, and an erratic Argentine who kicked a cameraman earlier this year at a Match for Peace.
Even though the race is only several months old, Platini, to few people’s surprise, already looks to have secured the presidency, absent a catastrophe of epic proportions, and despite the fact that candidates are still exploring whether to run or not.
To fully understand the comedy, you have to understand the basics of FIFA election math. Candidates need to submit written declarations of support from five national federations to FIFA, by Oct. 26, to secure a spot on the February ballot. Thus far, Platini is the only candidate to have clearly locked down that support.
To win the February election, he will need two-thirds of 209 votes from the national federations in the FIFA Congress. As early as July, Platini reportedly already had the support of four of the six confederations: Asia, Europe, CONCACAF, and South America. That’s 144 votes, enough to make Platini president. National federations aren’t required to vote in lock-step with their regional confederations, but traditionally, for the most part, stick together in regional blocs.
The math firmly places Platini several laps ahead of his competitors. But it says a lot that almost no one bats an eye at Platini securing the necessary votes to win before he’s even publicly revealed his platform. He confirmed that he was running in late July, roughly two months after Blatter’s resignation announcement. Asked by reporters, in late August, when he’d be amenable to talking about his candidacy, he replied, “One day.” Pressed further to give specifics—would it be in a month, two months?—he added, “I don’t know.”
Platini has spent the last several months orchestrating backroom meetings with national and regional soccer administrators around the world, shaking hands, probably making promises, and (if there were infants in the room) kissing babies—in effect, partaking in the same secretive game that led to FIFA’s ills and the public’s disdain, as we know them today.
Meanwhile, candidate Platini, who, like Blatter, is no stranger to controversy, sits back and takes credit for UEFA’s unblemished record, which looks pristine sitting next to the U.S. Department of Justice indictments that dropped in May, fingering FIFA officials and associates based in CONCACAF and South America. He doesn’t need to touch controversy. Asked why the European confederation hadn’t been rocked with the same types of scandal that has hit the other regional confederations, Platini smugly responded, “All thanks to the president.”
He has always scoffed at questions about why he voted for Qatar—a nation with well noted weather and labor problems—to host the 2022 World Cup. His son, coincidentally, landed a job working in Qatar, right after the 2010 vote. Platini also hasn’t really addressed the conveniently timed deals between France and Qatar around the vote, only vaguely admitting that “political and economic influences” played a part in the vote. Blatter confirmed as much, telling German weekly Die Zeit, “European leaders recommended to its voting members to opt for Qatar because of major economic interests in the country.”
While Platini hasn’t been convicted of anything, his proximity to suspicious behavior is difficult to ignore. That’s certainly relevant if reform really matters, and if Blatter’s hurried departure is inextricably tied to his reluctance to operate transparently, because Platini is acting in a similar manner. Questioned about his dealings with Qatar, Platini dismissively claims that people are conspiring against him. His cries, in the face of legitimate questions, sound a lot like the comments of the former “President for Life” whose throne he’s trying to usurp.
Listening to the candidates, there’s a distinct sense that not being Sepp Blatter is the only case one needs to make to the public. It’s one of the benefits of the constant vilification of the five-time president. That’s why Platini can afford to essentially stay silent. But it isn’t as if his challengers are saying anything better. South Korea’s Chung says things like, “The real reason FIFA has become such a corrupt organization is because the same person and his cronies have been running it for 40 years.” Notably, Chung was a FIFA vice president and executive committee member for 17 years.
Jordan’s Prince Ali sings the same tune: “It is only through new leadership that FIFA can change. I do not believe that FIFA can give this sport back to the people of the world without new leadership, untainted by the practices of the past.”
Run through the list of candidates and the rhetoric is mostly the same. There’s no need to explain what was problematic with Blatter’s leadership with any detail, nor is there a need to explain past affiliations, or structurally how things can be different in the future.
FIFA will have a new president before any candidate—particularly any with a chance of winning—has to say anything meaningful. That’s the sad reality. Despite the optics about how urgent the need is to replace Blatter, none of the potential next-in-lines will have to utter a meaningful word until after a new president is crowned and so-called independent investigations are concluded. That’s unfortunate because the reform process should have already started. It should have began for each candidate the minute an interest was expressed in going full egomaniac and taking Blatter’s throne.
But what would a real reform candidacy look like anyway?
Instead of dodging questions, Platini—even though the FIFA Statutes don’t require it—could have an open dialogue about how he envisions FIFA to work in the future. He could discuss the real tensions between the federations, and why Africa and Asia, for instance, might have had more tolerance for Blatter’s reign, aside from the repeated, naive, and simplistic attempts to conflate anyone who voted for Blatter with corruption. He could seek public support for his agenda, which would be sensible considering FIFA’s addiction to referring to soccer as “the people’s game,” even though FIFA operates in a manner that doesn’t require public approval for anything. He could invite a debate between candidates, even though it won’t be necessary after he scoops up the required votes on his backroom circuit.
Instead, pro-Platini letters are being circulated to lock national federations into supporting him, six months before the elections, while candidates are still coming out to express a desire to run. This one was sent from the Asian confederation to its members:
If the candidacies, to date, are anything to go by, those vying to be FIFA’s next leader—particularly the front-runner, Platini—don’t really seem to be too concerned with real reform; they just seem disgruntled at the make-up of the current gang. Meanwhile, they’re busy setting up their own gangs. And still, no one knows what’s being promised. National FAs, that were so vocal about reform after the Russia and Qatar victories, crying for Blatter’s removal, now have little to say and are themselves once again engaging in backroom conversations, declaring allegiances and presumably signing onto agendas.
The people—who the game is theoretically about—remain in the dark.
England FA chairman Greg Dyke—who has been whining about everything and generally sounding like a buffoon since he’s been in office—offered England’s support to Platini in July. At the time of the announcement, FA vice chairman David Gill, fresh off his appointment to the FIFA executive committee, said, “While we have yet to see Mr Platini’s manifesto, we believe he will fully support an ongoing reform process.”
Comforting. Because, really, who needs to see details?
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) chief Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa also expressed his preference for Platini back in July. Just this week, to the surprise of no one, the South Asian Football Federation said it will follow the AFC’s lead and back Platini.
Will a new president, whether Platini or someone else, usher in a new era based on substantial reforms? Maybe. But if being president of FIFA actually means something and is more than just a figurehead position, we’d be fools to expect that the same behavior that gave rise to Blatter—and shamed FIFA president Joao Havelange before him, and the apartheid-supporting Stanley Rous before that—will create a substantially different environment come February 2016.
God save us all.