Without hyperbole, one of the most important administrative actions in global sports history will likely take place on Friday in Zurich’s Hallenstadion entertainment complex. Officially dubbed the 2016 FIFA Extraordinary Congress, representatives from 207 individual member states of world soccer’s governing body will vote not only on who will succeed the terminally corrupt Sepp Blatter as president of the organization, but also to decide whether or not to adopt a sweeping list of administrative reforms geared toward preventing future scandals. The ultimate success of the former, however, is likely more dependent on the latter regardless of the personalities involved.
Blatter, if you may recall, was re-elected to his fifth term last May in the aftermath of a joint U.S.-Swiss effort that culminated in the raiding of FIFA’s Zurich headquarters, the arrest of several high-ranking executives, and the unveiling of a 47-count indictment against the organization by the U.S. Justice Department. Moreover, the Justice Department also issued a superseding indictment in December that led to the arrest of 16 more officials associated with FIFA. For his part, Blatter announced in June that he would step down despite his re-election. Although he received an eight-year ban by FIFA’s ethics committee for making illegal payments to another suspended executive, former Uefa president Michel Platini, some believe that Blatter has never actually resigned. On Wednesday, Blatter won a partial victory on appeal, with the committee reducing the ban to six years. Although he has no official credentials to physically appear at Friday’s Congress, Blatter’s specter will still linger over the event. His mere existence is an ugly reminder of the current status-quo, and his re-election last year is a reminder of how large of scale the reforms proposed for Friday’s vote will have to be to achieve any kind of lasting success.
The presidential election itself is largely a two-man race between the favorite, Bahrain’s Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa who currently serves as the president of the powerful Asian Football Confederation (AFC), and Uefa President Gianni Infantino. Blatter’s 2015 electoral opponent, Jordan’s Prince Ali Al Hussein, himself a long-shot candidate this time around, will likely be placed in the role of kingmaker. Although three weeks ago the executive board of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) met in Rwanda to coalesce support behind Sheikh Salman and his Asian contingent, individual member nation representatives may vote of their own free will. Infantino has picked up momentum in recent weeks, as his rise to popularity among European voters essentially allows Prince Ali zero chance at a successful candidacy. Infantino replaced the banned Platini as Europe’s consensus favorite while also gathering a swell of support in South America and the Caribbean. Also in the running but given virtually no realistic chance at victory are France’s Jerome Champagne and South Africa’s Tokyo Sexwale, who are expected to garner 10 votes or less apiece despite vowing to stay in the race. If the reform-minded Prince Ali can sway supporters towards Infantino’s favor, an upset is possible.
The series of reforms were adopted by the body’s reform committee, and unanimously approved by FIFA’s executive committee in December led by acting president Issa Hayatou. The stated goal is to create a system of checks and balances within the hierarchy, including term limits for top executives, as well as making their salaries a matter of public disclosure with the hope of avoiding the trail of bribes and kickbacks that have plagued the organization for generations. Additionally, the reform package will take the day-to-day business operations out of the hands of FIFA executives and political elites, and instead place that authority in the hands of a 36-member council, which will require at least six women to serve. The reform package must be approved by at least 75 percent of the voting members in order to be enacted. Implicitly, the reforms may be a requirement to offer any hope that FIFA will be able to stall or soften the U.S. criminal indictments and increased Swiss pressure. The reforms may be a hard sell, exemplified by the fact that even their official champion Hayatou himself has been censured by the International Olympic Committee for a series of shady television marketing deals in the 1990s, as well as his being accused of accepting a $1.1 million bribe from Qatar for its 2022 World Cup award. Both Hayatou and representatives from Qatar have repeatedly denied that allegation.
As the leading voice for reform, Prince Ali failed to persuade the global Court for Arbitration for Sport (CAS) on Wednesday to mandate that each voting member submit a photograph of his or her ballot to ensure transparency. Therefore, ballots will again be secret much like last year, where Blatter was listed as a 1-10 favorite to remain as FIFA president despite being engulfed in scandal and the freshly unsealed indictment. While certainly excelling in the role of corruptible leader, Blatter’s actions may have been as symptomatic as they were nefarious. For years, smaller and poorer states have used the power of their potential support as a hedge to bring much-needed economic activity to their countries in the form of tournaments, events, and marketing deals. To many of the member states and even indifferent fans of the game, this is seen as a victimless crime and a way to spread the billions in FIFA-generated revenue among its economically vulnerable members. For supporters of transparency and those concerned about FIFA’s general reputation, however, the status-quo corruption is unacceptable. Despite the scandals and legal turmoil, Prince Ali and others have accused Sheikh Salman of conducting “business as usual” involving backroom dealings and secret agreements in order to gain his status as the favorite. Although a two-thirds majority is required to declare a winner on the first vote, subsequent ballots only require a simple majority.
The cronyism involving FIFA executives and its member states is not just limited to smaller (and poorer) countries trying to slice off a piece of the money pie. U.S. officials are also dealing with a tremendous geopolitical contingency. Given the leadership role of the Justice Department, along with Swiss authorities, in investigating the awarding of both the 2018 World Cup to Russia and especially the 2022 award to Qatar, a major U.S. ally in the region, any attempt to strip the winning countries of the World Cups could be politically subverted. Considering that the U.S. has a major military base in Qatar, and that country’s proximity to the Syria conundrum, BBC’s Richard Conway notes that, “many question whether there is the political will from President Barack Obama’s administration to carry out the ultimate threat (to prosecute FIFA on racketeering charges leading to a revocation of the 2022 bid).” Conway adds, “One insider said recently he believes there is pressure on Loretta Lynch, the U.S. Attorney General, not to act in this regard.” The U.S. Navy also stations a major base in Sheikh Salman’s Bahrain, adding to the diplomatic entanglement.
Still, the criminal investigations have ramped up from both sides of the Atlantic including December’s wave of Justice Department indictments. Swiss authorities also increased its scrutiny of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids, and they launched a criminal probe into Blatter’s actions in recent months. A failure to gain the required 75 percent approval needed to enact the reforms could come at the peril of the World Cup awards and perhaps the existence of FIFA itself. A failure to pursue the criminal case against FIFA and its related alleged conspirators by the U.S. or Swiss authorities, however, implies that they too will bypass law and order for political expediency. Altogether, the complex tapestry of the FIFA saga will likely produce one of three endgame scenarios: 1: the reforms will pass and FIFA will be afforded the opportunity to attempt more transparent business dealings; 2: FIFA will cease to exist as a governing body, brought down under the weight of its own scandals; or 3: all parties involved will come to accept the inherent corruption as a necessary consequence of governing the global empire of the world’s most popular game.
(Note: There are actually 209 affiliated nations involved with FIFA, but Kuwait and Indonesia are currently barred from participating in the Congress)
Editor’s note: Please read at this article on soccer training for a great look at the conditioning necessary to play this demanding sport.
BBC – Richard Conway
ESPNFC – Vivek Chaudhary
The Guardian(UK) – Owen Gibson