Earlier this morning, a protester held up a placard outside Zurich’s Hallenstadion with the words: “Make FIFA great again. Vote Trump.” It was both a witty indictment of FIFA and a reflection of the institutional crisis the organization is going through. Inside the Hallenstadion, there was déjà vu: same city, same conference hall, and same pantomime – the FIFA presidential elections, though this time without the great survivor Sepp Blatter.
FIFA’s great empire began to collapse on a cold December afternoon in 2010 when Blatter and his FIFA Executive Committee awarded the 2022 World Cup to tiny, gas-rich Qatar in front of a global TV audience. That cataclysmic moment allowed FIFA’s gilded bubble to be pierced slowly but surely, culminating in arrests and indictments by the FBI and Swiss authorities last year.
Today’s extraordinary FIFA congress convened to pass a reform package and elect a successor to Blatter, but little suggested the organization wants wholesale change. FIFA’s interim president Issa Hayatou trumpeted the language of reform, but has presided over African football in a demagogic way since 1988. The president of the Congolese National Federation Omari Selemani soon followed suit in a bizarre double act, but has firmly supported Blatter in the past. Both soccer administrators tried hard to convince, but failed. They were the messengers of the old regime.
Hayatou and Selemani embody FIFA’s twofold problem: the organization needs to change and achieve a perception in line with that goal. Today, FIFA didn’t seem determined to metamorphose from a corrupt and patronage-driven fiefdom into a more credible sports body: there was neither an attempt at total housecleaning nor an endeavor to craft a roadmap for true reform.
Before the morning was out in Zurich, a diatribe of buzzwords had filled the congress hall – transparency, responsibility, good governance, and leadership. The organization’s global membership did approve a set of new reforms, including a term limit of 12 years for the FIFA president, stricter integrity checks, more female representation, a FIFA Council instead of the all-powerful FIFA Executive Committee (who awarded the World Cup to bidding countries), an audit of the 209 national federations’s finances, and disclosure of the FIFA president’s compensation.
It neatly projects the image of reform FIFA so desires, but too many questions remain: FIFA officials have decided not to re-examine some highly controversial decisions and contracts, notably awarding the 2018 and 2022 World Cup to Russia and Qatar respectively and doling out media and hospitality rights without a transparent bidding process. The perks for the many members sitting on the hodgepodge of FIFA committees and task forces were left untouched. At the level of the national federations, there is equally little desire for root-and-branch reform either.
Neither is there at the top. In the afternoon, the five presidential candidates – all longstanding members of the soccer establishment – delivered brief pitches. Prince Ali of Jordan alleged that “FIFA’s past must not be allowed to destroy its future.” Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa from Bahrain spoke with much self-confidence about how “trying to close the gap between the smaller nations and the bigger ones is right.” Jerome Champagne, for many years Sepp Blatter’s right-hand man, invoked globalization and growing inequality to change world soccer. Europe’s candidate and UEFA secretary-general Gianni Infantino denounced a Eurocentric view of the global game and Toxyo Sexwale, a former Apartheid fighter alongside Nelson Mandela, delivered a barnstorming speech before suspending his campaign.
The five men who would be king all lacked credibility. They employed traditional pork barrel tactics to further their own campaigns, promising an expanded World Cup and a big gravy train from development funds for the national federations.
In reality, the election was a two-horse race between Infantino and Sheikh Salman. Both are soccer apparatchiks who vaguely supported reforms. The 45-year-old Swiss man, who comes from Brig, the village next to Blatter’s birthplace of Visp, promised to turn FIFA into a “modern well-governed institution,” while Sheikh Salman pledged “a culture of transparency.”
Salman was the frontrunner. He had received pre-election backing of the Asian Football Confederation, along with the endorsement of the African Football Confederation, but persisting accusations of human rights violations and his role in suppressing a pro-democracy movement in Bahrain in 2011 cast a shadow over his campaign.
In the first ballot of voting, a candidate needed a two-thirds majority, 138 of the 207 votes (with the Indonesian and Kuwaiti federations suspended) to win the elections. Infantino received 88 votes, while Salman claimed 85 in a neck-to-neck race.
Thus Prince Ali, with just 37 votes, became kingmaker in the second ballot, when only a simple majority was required. US Soccer had voted for Prince Ali in round no. 1. The Federación Mexicana de Fútbol had backed Infantino from the start according to media reports. In the second ballot, the European got 115 votes to claim the top job in world sports as Ali’s votes presumably swung to him.
Vero Communications, a team of spin doctors whose previous successes include bringing the 2012 Olympic Games to London and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, had engineered Infantino’s surprising victory. In the election season he had embarked on a hard-hitting, global campaign in more than 100 countries, professing that he was FIFA’s way forward.
“We will restore the image of FIFA, and everyone in the world will applaud us, and all of you, for what we do in FIFA in the future,” said Infantino said in his acceptance speech.
Infantino’s connection to former UEFA president Michel Platini may come to haunt him in the future. Indeed, much of the protracted afternoon in Zurich resembled a poorly-casted gangster movie with both Infantino and Salman as the chief villains. FIFA reforming FIFA is hogwash: Infantino, as the organization’s new frontman, is simply an exponent of a non-election. His promise of $5 million to each of FIFA’s 209 members was a key feature of his campaign. It’s an old trick of the FIFA trade, which highlights that Infantino is not the reformer he claims to be.