Outside of Murky Politics, Zico Seeks the FIFA Presidency

It was just before the stroke of half-time that Michel Platini struck: Brazil was toiling and tiring a bit in the stifling Mexican heat of Guadalajara when France carved the Brazilian left flank open and France’s number 10 tapped the ball into the net at the far post. In the 71st minute, Zico substituted Muller. That Saturday afternoon, in a 1986 Mexico World Cup quarterfinal, the Seleção and Les Bleus were evenly matched in a true advertisement for soccer. Ultimately, France prevailed after a penalty shootout with Zico converting and Platini misfiring from the spot.

Brazil would never play such exhilarating fútbol again, a sophisticated interlocking of eleven players with free-flowing attacking soccer, and Germany would sink France in the semifinals, but both Zico and Platini had demonstrated why they belonged in the pantheon of soccer gods.

France’s captain had demonstrated again why he was the epitome of intelligence and elegance, reading the game perfectly and poaching a goal. Zico, a bit over his prime, showed glimpses of his skills and visionary passing game.

Today Zico and Platini may meet again, but on a different stage and in a different context: they both want soccer’s top job, the throne at FIFA’s glass house in Zurich, Switzerland. But the piranha pool of murky FIFA politics might be a considerable obstacle in their way.

His reputation is untarnished from corruption allegations.

Last May, Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan gained 73 votes in the first round of the FIFA elections. Then Prince Ali stood down, conceding that he could not dethrone the incumbent FIFA president Sepp Blatter. The shrewd, squat, balding, and impervious Blatter won, then performed a thespian U-turn by standing down four days later. At last, Blatter had been cornered, presumably by the FBI in a jaw-dropping roller coaster of arrests and indictments.

Zico decided he wants a clean break and stepped into the race to become FIFA royalty. The Brazilian has sound reasons to do so: firstly, he is South American and secondly, his reputation is untarnished from corruption allegations.

If Zico were to be successful, he’d be the second FIFA president from Latin America.

In the 1930s, João Havelange was a swimmer of modest success, whose failures at the 1936 Olympic Games left him frustrated. He fared no better at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games with the Brazilian water polo team. He wanted to do better as an administrator to put his native Brazil on the world map. Havelange decided that soccer was the perfect vehicle to do so, firstly through the Seleção, then through his ascension to the FIFA presidency in 1974. He masterminded soccer’s steady rise to a multi-billion dollar industry, together with his friend and heir to the Adidas empire Horst Dassler. Later, Sepp Blatter would become his protégé.

In this respect, Zico has an unblemished record.

“He was the Napoleon of world sport and soccer administration,” explained Brazilian soccer journalist Alexandre Gontijo.

Havelange and his stepson Ricardo Teixeira received a staggering $42 million in bribes from Swiss sports marketing company International Sport and Leisure in exchange for the FIFA World Cup TV broadcasting rights between 1992 and 2000, according to Swiss court documents.

João Havelange
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In this respect, Zico has an unblemished record. He issued a 10-point manifesto, envisioning FIFA as an organization based around “democratization, transparency, governance, and the permanent evolution of world football” and called for a preliminary debate about the future of FIFA.

“Zico’s main problem is that he hasn’t got the political clout in soccer circles.”

Zico’s lack of experience in soccer administration may thwart any ambitions he harbors. In the early 90s, Zico was a minister of sports in the government of Brazilian president Fernando Collor, but he neither reformed an ailing domestic soccer league nor left a sound legal legacy.

“He was a puppet, a marionette in a bad government,” explained Gontijo. “Zico’s main problem is that he hasn’t got the political clout in soccer circles.”

Zico’s challenge is manifold: by October 26, all candidates need the written backing of five fútbol associations to run for the FIFA presidency, as required by the FIFA electoral rules. Zico has identified Japan, Uzbekistan, India, and Turkey as potential backers, where he coached in the past, but so far only the Confederação Brasileira de Futebol (Brazilian Football Confederation, or CBF) has promised support if he gets four other associations behind him. He will need another 105 votes from football associations after those five nominations to secure the FIFA presidency.

While Zico seeks support, Sepp Blatter’s protracted goodbye hasn’t done much to improve FIFA’s image, but within soccer politics, global battle lines are being drawn. Sepp Blatter’s shadow hangs over the challenge of UEFA president Michel Platini, who has the backing of the American Football Conference and Confederation of African Football. Hyundai tycoon Dr. Chung Mong-Joon presented himself as a non-Eurocentric crisis manager and reformer in soccer. Prince Ali has announced he is standing again.

Zico pretty much remains a fringe candidate.

“There are only three heavyweight contenders at the moment – Platini, Chung, and Prince Ali,” said English football journalist Andrew Warsaw, who is a close observer of FIFA politics. “They have widespread administrative experience. They have all served on FIFA. Clearly, they have the clout and the know-how to launch a bid. It doesn’t mean they will win.”

Zico pretty much remains a fringe candidate, but if he does succeed in setting up a rematch with Michel Platini for the FIFA presidency, he will have come a long way.