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The problem with FIFA? Democracy

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The election campaign is getting serious.

Its first three weeks have been quiet but now a potential leader has released his manifesto.

And it’s about time. The voting will take place in just three months. Will the world get the new leadership it craves?

Whether you’re a passionate soccer fan or you just have a passing interest in the game, you must know that we have to get rid of Sepp Blatter, President of FIFA (the sport’s international governing body).

In the lead up to the May 29 ballot, we’re being reminded of past and present shortcomings. There’s his history of gaffes (female footballers “should wear tighter shorts and low-cut shirts …”) and a long list of daft changes he’s proposed to the game (abolishing draws was my favourite).

Little wonder that a German journalist once said, “Sepp Blatter has 50 ideas before breakfast every morning, and 51 of them are bad.”

We’re also reminded of all the investigations into alleged corruption and financial mismanagement in FIFA. Unlike some other senior FIFA officials, Blatter has never been found guilty of accepting illegal payments. But it’s all happened on his watch hasn’t it? What’s he doing about it?

Nothing. That “ethics committee” of his is simply whitewashing reports into the awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.

The good news is that because these farces have received so much publicity, reform is inevitable. FIFA must change and that has to include a new leader. Three candidates are ready to oust Blatter so you can say goodbye to the Swiss Bonaparte.

There’s only one problem.

Much of what you’ve just read is almost confined to first world countries that enjoy media freedom. How many of them are there?

Certainly the number is well below 105. FIFA has 209 members (more than the UN as FIFA includes countries that aren’t fully independent). In the election for its presidency, each association has one vote regardless of size, wealth or soccer pedigree.

And although it’s remarkably straightforward, much of the western media’s coverage of the battle for FIFA’s top job ignores that the sport’s leadership is in the hands of Burundi, Yemen, Haiti and their like.

A few excellent articles have been written in recent weeks explaining why Blatter keeps winning and how he won’t be defeated unless other candidates make inroads into his power bases in Africa and Asia. But those more insightful pieces have almost been lost in a cacophony of lazy whining about reforms that FIFA needs. Some of those whines have been mischievous enough to lull readers into believing that their despised leader’s time will soon be up.

Last week we discovered that, even in the unlikely event that Blatter loses, his successor will simply replicate him.

When Luís Figo entered the race, the former Portuguese star player declared that it was the moment for “change in leadership, governance, transparency and solidarity”. Western European nations would have loved it.

But just three weeks later, the highlights of his manifesto are expanding the World Cup to either 40 or 48 teams (it currently has 32) and sending more of FIFA’s cash reserves to its member associations.

That’s not change. Promises of this sort are straight out of Sepp Blatter’s playbook.

Blatter has been at FIFA for 40 years. Before he won the top job, he was the trusted lieutenant of João Havelange, FIFA President from 1974 to 1998.

He has spent much of that time building relationships with countries in Africa, Asia, the Americas and Oceania. Many of those countries felt ignored before the Havelange-Blatter era.

In 1974, only 16 countries could qualify for the World Cup and only three of those came from outside Europe or South America. At last year’s World Cup, 13 of the 32 teams weren’t from either of those traditionally powerful regions.

Moreover, countries all over the world have benefitted from FIFA’s immense commercial success of recent decades. Through FIFA, revenue generated when we watched matches like the 1998 World Cup final between France and Brazil found its way to Samoa, where a lot more local and international matches have been played since the JS Blatter Football Fields were opened in 2001.

Perhaps in the last few weeks Figo and his team have been confronted by the reality of this campaign. FIFA is a democracy and one that validates Churchill’s quote, “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried” like no other.

Because it looks like his plans have been hastily drawn up in an attempt to woo countries in regions that normally support Blatter. Why else would Figo be touting that in his World Cup expansion proposals extra teams will come from outside Europe?

And the detail of how his 48-team World Cup might work is so silly it’s almost frightening. Two 24-team tournaments played at the same time (but in different continents) leading to a single knockout tournament in one country? Had Blatter wheeled up such a laughable proposal, those lists of his greatest misses would have been updated instantly.

Though Figo has denied it, it’s difficult to believe that his campaign hasn’t been influenced by Michel Platini, President of UEFA (Europe’s regional confederation) and a Blatter rival.

Platini would dearly love to get the top job himself but he decided not to nominate. Instead, he’s hoping that Figo and the other candidates, Dutch federation president Michael van Praag and Prince Ali bin Al-Hussein of Jordan, will at least weaken Blatter’s iron grip.

To some, Platini, who, like Figo, was once a star player, is a white knight; the best bet for a new world order.

Nope.

In fact, if Platini had the cojones to run for the presidency himself, I’d hope that Blatter survived.

Most fans that are horrified by the shenanigans surrounding the vote for Qatar believe that Blatter is responsible. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Blatter may be FIFA President but he doesn’t have dictatorial power. The decision to award World Cup hosting rights is made by FIFA’s 24-member Executive Committee and some of those members make Blatter look like a choirboy. He almost certainly voted for the United States to host the 2022 tournament, not Qatar.

But Platini did vote for Qatar and has admitted doing so. Following last year’s corruption allegations against Qatar’s bid, Platini was quick to insist that if they were proven there should be a new ballot. Really …

In his role as UEFA President, Platini has already shown that he’s prepared to build personal power to the sport’s detriment (he insists otherwise).

The best example is in the organisation of the European Championship, which is soccer’s best tournament for international teams after the World Cup.

Platini is increasing it from 16 to 24 teams (see a pattern here?) which is simultaneously making its 14-month long qualification series less interesting while ensuring that the tournament phase will be lumbered with an awkward format (soccer tournaments with eight, 16 or 32 teams work best).

Luís Figo’s ideas are surely too similar to Platini’s for it to be a coincidence (Figo has even proposed the use of sin bins in soccer – another thing that Platini has championed.)

Fortunately it seems most commentators have given the Figo manifesto the criticism it deserves. Perhaps they’ve realised that you should be careful what you wish for.

Because despite Sepp Blatter’s faults, this recent outbreak of stupidity shows that if he’s replaced any time soon it’ll be by another president who has 50 ideas before breakfast.

Paul Marcuccitti is an Adelaide soccer fan and writer on the sport. His soccer column is published in InDaily on Mondays. 

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