When it comes to global soccer, you’d be hard-pressed to overstate the significance of FIFA‘s presidential election this Friday. The vote represents a chance for soccer’s governing body to finally move on from the excess and scandal that defined Sepp Blatter’s 17-year reign as capo di tutti capi.
But will Friday’s vote actually catalyze true reform? Or should we soccer fans steel ourselves to simply meet the new boss, same as the old boss? We won’t have definitive answers for years — but Friday sets the course.
Below, you’ll find everything you need to know for Friday’s FIFA election, as well as some expert insight from ESPN investigative reporter Jeremy Schaap. Schaap produced a powerful documentary last spring that helped illuminate just how rotten Blatter’s FIFA had become, and he’ll be in Zurich, Switzerland, covering Friday’s election.
By the time Schaap’s Blatter investigation hit the web last spring, it was already very clear to soccer fans that FIFA had become rotten under the Swiss president, who was first elected over Lennart Johansson in 1998.
But Schaap’s documentary helped thrust malfeasance at FIFA further into the mainstream public eye. After a long saga of denial and finagling, Blatter was finally banned from soccer for eight years in December. (His ban was reduced to six years on Wednesday.)
Now we reach the climax of the race to replace Blatter, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. Consider this: Blatter was in power for 17 years, his predecessor was in power for 23 years and his predecessor’s predecessor was in power for 13 years. So whoever gets elected Friday is likely to have a profound impact on soccer — for better or worse — for a very, very long time.
Which brings us to the candidates.
Among a field of five, two candidates have emerged as favorites to win Friday’s election. One is Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa from Bahrain.
Sheikh Salman is one of eight FIFA vice presidents and the president of the Asian Football Confederation. He’s a FIFA insider with the connections to pull off a win, but critics decry his alleged role in Bahrain’s violent response against pro-democracy protesters during the Arab Spring of 2011. In short: He’s a sheikh, a soccer insider and questions linger about his involvement in human-rights violations.
That’s so FIFA, baby.
Even more perfect: The William Hill sports book puts his odds of winning at 8/15.
The other front-runner is Gianni Infantino from Switzerland. He’s the general secretary of UEFA, which runs European soccer. UEFA’s backing is big in matters of international soccer, so Infantino is a real contender after joining the race in October. William Hill gives him a 6/4 shot at winning.
The remaining field is headlined by Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan, who unsuccessfully ran against Blatter last May before Blatter was banned from the game. William Hill gives him an 8-1 shot this time around. Jérôme Champagne of France has a 66-1 shot, the same as Tokyo Sexwale of South Africa.
Sexwale is the Ben Carson of this race in that he isn’t campaigning much and seems to be the only person with any notion that he still belongs in the field. But he has such a great name that we’ll let it slide.
Shout it from the rooftops, people: TOKYO SEXWALE!
Jeremy Schaap will be in Zurich on Thursday and Friday covering the election live. We asked him five questions via email about what to expect from one of the most important moments in FIFA’s 112-year history.
What are you tracking most intently during the run-up to Friday?
There are a lot of moving parts. In addition to the individual member federations, you’ve got the confederations, the executive committee and all the other fiefdoms that make FIFA so chaotic and resistant to outside forces. The big questions over the next few days all concern who is backing whom, and for how long.
To over-simplify the equation, you have most of the traditional soccer powers from Europe and South America aligning themselves with candidates who are promising to change the way FIFA goes about doing its business and much of the developing world, asking, “Why would we change a system that has empowered us?” All the candidates are promising some degree of reform, but there is a sense that a vote for Sheikh Salman is a vote to maintain the status quo.
Of course, we all want to know how the United States will vote — but frankly the U.S. vote matters not a smidgen more than Montserrat’s or Andorra’s or Brunei’s. FIFA is not a one person/one vote organization. It’s a one federation/one vote organization.
Your documentary report on Blatter and FIFA was a big factor in elevating this story to the mainstream. If someone had told you Blatter would be gone within months and there’d be an election for his replacement in early 2016, how realistic would that have seemed at the time?
It seemed quite clear when we went to air last May that Blatter would be re-elected to a fifth term. It also seemed clear that there would be a reckoning at some point during the course of 2015, effected by the US Department of Justice. Its case had been building for so long. Did we expect the high drama of those raids in Zurich? Or Blatter’s subsequent resignation? No; I wish I could say we were that smart.
The cynic’s response to Blatter being out would be that it’s unlikely to fix the problems that defined his presidency. Have the culture and corruption within FIFA actually changed in any meaningful way yet, or is that more where this election comes in?
I don’t think there’s been a culture change at FIFA since May because I don’t think that anybody’s been in charge. That is much of what this election is about. Will the culture change? A cynic certainly has the right to say no, but I would disagree, not because there is an overriding will inside the organization to reform, but because FIFA will have no choice but to conduct its business more transparently and more honestly.
The United States and Swiss authorities are not going to tolerate the kind of criminality we’ve seen for generations and therefore behavior will have to change, at least to some extent. The power brokers now have an understanding that they cannot operate with impunity, that there is at least the possibility that there will be consequences for their actions.
From your perspective, is there one candidate in this election who seems to offer a better chance at reforming FIFA the way so many hope to see? If so, who and why?
I think both Prince Ali and Gianni Infantino make credible cases that they are interested in reform. But I think it’s unfortunate that the organization has effectively eliminated from the process outsiders who might have been able to use their moral authority and managerial, executive and diplomatic skills to FIFA’s benefit. Anyone who hasn’t been active recently in the world of soccer is barred from running, which eliminated a lot of people who might have been good candidates and anyone who is a true outsider.
We’ve already seen one candidate call for postponing this election over concerns about the voting process. (His proposal was rejected Thursday.) Ultimately, will we wake up Saturday morning and have a newly elected FIFA president? Or, what I’m really asking is: How much can change between now and Friday?
If they didn’t postpone the election after the big roundup last May, they’re not going to postpone it to make the voting booths transparent — unless some authority somehow has the power to shut it down, which I doubt. I do think there will be a new president when we wake up Saturday. I think the election will go on.