There is less than a month to go before Fifa will elect its next president. On 26 February, an “extraordinary congress” (as the officials are calling it) will be held in Zurich to decide who will lead football’s governing body out of the doldrums. But what is an election without a little bit of farce? While the biggest farce is probably Fifa holding an election at all, instead of opting for complete independence at top level, the candidates are not exactly covering themselves in the glory of transparency. All candidates were due to have a debate in European parliament, organised by the NewFifaNow pressure group and the European Parliament’s Sports Intergroup, on Wednesday, but the plans collapsed this week.
Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa declined the invitation, while Gianni Infantino submitted a video. On Monday Prince Ali bin Al Hussein and Tokyo Sexwale withdrew. Price Ali said that he withdrew based on advice that the debate “may well constitute a breach of FIFA election rules,” adding his understanding that either Sheikh Salman or Infantino had “made a complaint to the Ad Hoc Electoral Committee” on the basis of political interference. Both Salman and Infantino denied these claims on Thursday. The BBC also had to cancel their planned live debate after Salman declined to attend and the others tried to “impose conditions”. With so much canvassing to do and so little time, it’s no surprise that candidates don’t have time for debates to ensure transparency becomes a top priority.
Officially there are five candidates Gianni Infantino of Switzerland; South Africa’s Tokyo Sexwale; Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa of Bahrain; Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan; and Jérôme Champagne of France. Behind the scenes, though, it is far more likely that the race will come down to just Infantino and Sheikh Salman as the front runners. According to the New York Times several officials who are closely following the campaigns, when asked to appraise the potential support each candidate would have if the election were held today, things would go as follow: Sheikh Salman has about 80 to 90 votes, Infantino has 70 to 80 votes, Prince Ali has around 30 votes, and the other two candidates have around five votes each.
Salman is widely tipped as favourite, but his inclusion on the ballot has caused much outrage. Mark Pieth, the academic employed by Fifa originally to oversee its reform efforts, called for an outcry from voters over Salman’s inclusion in the presidential race. Salman has been accused by Bahraini human rights groups of helping to identify players and other athletes involved in 2011 democracy protests. Several people died while others were detained and tortured in custody while Salman was head of the Bahrain Football Association and a member of the ruling royal family.
Last year, The Guardian reported that it had seen a letter from the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy in which it called on Michael Garcia, then head of the investigatory unit of the Fifa ethics committee, to investigate Sheikh Salman’s role in “systematically targeting and mistreating athletes who have taken part in anti-government protests”.
Salman has denied any direct involvement in these incidents saying that there is “no proof”, but human rights activists and academics are concerned.
“We need an outcry from the 209 FAs. They should ask: Is this what we want? Really? Is Salman a credible agent of democracy and a fresh start? Is he suitable?”, Pieth told the German newspaper, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
These concerns are likely to fall on deaf ears, though. Salman has been endorsed by the Asian confederation’s executive committee, however, it does not mean he will get all of Asia’s votes. Prince Ali (who pushed Blatter close in last year’s election) has some support there, but will have to work hard elsewhere to garner support. For the first time in many years, it seems as voting will not be as simple as the bloc-votes that have dominated previous elections.
The African bloc have been mum on whether they would endorse any of the candidates, but if they do, it’s not likely to be South Africa’s Sexwale. His campaign has been called everything from underwhelming to lacklustre, with Botswana the only confederation so far suggesting that they might back him. However, Salman signed a cooperative agreement with the African confederation earlier this month. The memorandum of understand (MOU) will allow the confederations to “share information, experience, initiate high level competitions and conduct joint technical development programs”. The deal has not been in place for about 15 years now, after there was some acrimony over World Cup hosting.
Prince Ali called on Fifa to investigate the matter saying that it could have been an attempt to “break electoral rules”(although he did not state which one) and that the timing of the MOU looks like a “blatant attempt to engineer a bloc vote”. Salman denied any wrongdoing saying that these negotiations started in October last year already, but the comments aren’t likely to go down too well with the African bloc. With 54 out of the 209 votes coming from here, winning votes (here) is crucial, especially with so many candidates canvassing support elsewhere.
Infantino has wide support in Europe, but this voting bloc endorsed Ali during last year’s elections, and some could do the same again. There was some speculation that Infantino could withdrew last minute and urge his supporters to back Salman, but only if he did not believe he had enough support to win. Securing Europe alone will not be enough, though, so perhaps Infantino has got a Concacaf card up his sleeve. Nobody really knows what Concacaf will do since the bulk of their leaders have been served by the US Justice Department and many federations are being run by temporary leaders. Those in these positions might not care too much for the long term and might simply be happy to have seen the back of Blatter and none of their votes will even matter if one or two blocs have been wooed by the candidates. DM
Presbyterians is an anagram of Britney Spears.