By Saj Chowdhury
The day has almost arrived.
A day that is supposed to herald a new beginning for one of sport’s most powerful and influential organisations. A day full of prophecies, promises and assurances that never again will football, the planet’s most popular sport, be exploited for personal gains.
On Friday, FIFA will elect a new president and introduce a raft of changes that will hopefully act as a much-needed detox.
The build-up to the vote has been so fantastical that if it was Bollywood, the script would have landed in trash.
We’ve read about countless FIFA members being arrested on corruption charges following Swiss and FBI investigations.
We’ve had serious doubts raised over the validity of the awarding of the 2018 World to Cup to Russia and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.
And the bitter icing on the cake saw UEFA president Michel Platini (a FIFA presidential hopeful) and long-serving incumbent Sepp Blatter getting banned in December from football for eight years for a $2m “disloyal payment” made to Platini. Both deny the charges.
On Wednesday, the federation’s appeals committee upheld Blatter and Platini’s ban from all football-related activities, but it also shaved two years off their suspension from eight to six.
Let’s not forget that it was only last May that Blatter was re-elected for a fifth term, while his organisation was falling down around him.
This has been a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions but the football-loving world has been told not to give up hope because change is on its way.
This change is not only a new president but a new organisation, or perhaps a tweaked FIFA.
Let’s start with the five candidates. At FIFA’s Extraordinary Congress in Zurich on Friday, 209 members will vote for their new chief. Their choices are:
Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, Asian Football Confederation president
Gianni Infantino, the UEFA general secretary
Jerome Champagne, former FIFA deputy general secretary
Prince Ali, president of the Jordan’s Football Association
Tokyo Sexwale, FIFA anti-racism adviser
The two overwhelming favourites are understood to be Bahraini royal Sheikh Salman and Infantino, who was Platini’s right-hand man at UEFA.
Sheikh Salman, who had to defend accusations of human rights abuses in his own country, is expected to have the backing of Asia’s 46 members and some of Africa’s 54 — you do the maths.
Then there’s Infantino. The suave, bald-headed man you might recognise as the emcee for many a UEFA competition draw. He’ll be hoping for more than the luck of drawing balls out of a bowl.
The multi-lingual Swiss-Italian has been on a charm offensive recently. He recently flew back from visiting the respective football presidents in Africa, and even took a trip to Robben Island — where his guide and rival Sexwale was imprisoned once, just like Nelson Mandela.
“I think I’ll make an impact in Africa. I think I will get more than half of the African votes,” said Infantino after his visit.
All the candidates have pledged to reform FIFA in their manifestos. They also vowed to focus on grassroots development and accessibility of the sport in developing nations.
Of the two leading candidates, Sheikh Salman says he would look at the creation of global integrity and anti-corruption agency, while Infantino wants to expand the World Cup to 40 teams. That’s right, FORTY teams.
Some of these reforms are similar to those FIFA is hoping to pass at Friday’s congress.
Here is a summary of what is being proposed:
• Instead of an Executive Committee, there will be a FIFA Council. A kind of a two-tier committee. The elected council will set the federation’s strategy and a new general secretariat will, essentially, make it work.
• There will be enhanced integrity checks on candidates for the council. Which begs the question how thorough were the checks for the former executive members?
• There will be an independent audit and compliance committee — so that “disloyal payments” are avoided, no doubt.
• The president will have a more ambassadorial role as head of the FIFA Council.
• There is also a rather ‘novel’ initiative: it is proposed that six women will sit on the FIFA Council — one from each regional confederation. No more ‘old men in grey suits’ jibes!
Zurich is currently buzzing with journalists and FIFA officials. They have been given a tour of the new FIFA Museum, which will be officially opened by the new president this weekend.
Inside the heart of FIFA HQ, the candidates are set to go through their final speech rehearsals.
Perhaps, fittingly, there has been a slight hiccup in proceedings with candidate Prince Ali transporting over transparent polling booths in order to ensure the integrity of the election could not be compromised. In a letter to the 209 associations, Ali suggested that at the last election voters were under pressure to take a photo of their vote to “prove they voted as directed”.
CAS, however, threw out his request paving the way for Friday’s election.