The Thick Of It: Controversy, Politics and the FIFA Presidency

Posted on April 14, 2011 by


Anonymity is a characteristic after which many politicians yearn and are often eluded by. Let’s face it, whenever we discuss Silvio Berlusconi the many body of the conversation isn’t a thorough dissection of his political policies but rather a gratifying discussion of the ill-fated sexual ventures that frequently feature in his indulgent lifestyle. In football’s hierarchy much the same principle applies. If you’ve heard of Sepp Blatter, you can instinctively cite one of the scandals that hangs over his tenure as president of FIFA. This truism may become all to relevant for Blatter in June when his status is threatened by Muhammed Bin Hammam, his first challenger for 9 years. It’s welcome news for anyone who has grown exasperated by the apparent stagnation at FIFA but, as of yet, there is little universal knowledge of this new candidate so perhaps we would be best advised to proceed with caution.

However, it is not our approval that will be sought after in the coming months. The election of FIFA’s president will primarily be determined by the 208 members of the FIFA congress, each of whom is a representative of FIFA’s member associations. In short: men in suits. The most influential suit is Michel Platini who, as president of UEFA presides over some 53 of the votes and, typically, may prove to be something of a hard sell (doesn’t he always?). The rest of the seats in congress will be populated by other representatives from AFC (Asian Football Confederation), CAF (Confederation of African Football), CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football), CONMEBOL (Confederación Sudamericana de Futbol) and OFC (Oceania Football Confederation). It is essentially a popularity contest among football’s most powerful diplomats and, with an institution so often accused of corruption found at the heart of matters, we can all rest assured that a scandal will ensue at some point before the elections take place in Zurich from May 31st to June 1st. We may just be in for a month or two of all the mud-slinging and immaturity of a well orchestrated political campaign.

Since his appointment in 1998, scandal has been a regrettable, and indeed persistent, companion of Sepp Blatter’s term as FIFA president. Allegations of bribery and corruption have been a regular feature at FIFA in recent years, an unfortunate predicament for which Blatter himself will ultimately be held accountable. However, it is the conduct of the man himself that may render his future in the post to be somewhat precarious. As recently as December, Blatter made some ill-advised comments regarding the danger faced by football’s gay community come the 2022 World Cup in Qatar where homosexuality is currently Illegal. He proposed they ‘refrain from any sexual activities’ should they wish to attend the tournament, in a blunder tragically reminiscent of an incident in 2004 where he offered some…’constructive criticism’ of women’s football: “Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. They could, for example, wear tighter shorts.” These are the sort of remarks for which pundits may be (and have been) typically condemned and perhaps should not be uttered by a media savvy, politically minded leader of football’s governing body. Whatever Sepp Blatter’s public relation shortcomings, paramount to his dwindling popularity has been his recurring refusal to introduce goal-line technology with a view to curbing the influence of human error in officiating. Aside from the fact this stance seems to comprehensively deviate from what many fans believe, his unfaltering reluctance has been difficult to digest for many given the technology’s prominent role in other sports such as rugby. Blatter has recently started to concede ground on this particular matter but can we be sure that any sign of progressiveness isn’t precipitated solely by the threat of an opposition candidate? Consider the wife whose husband’s attention is only ever the product of jealousy.

Muhammed Bin Hammam

Although, when AFC president Mohamed Bin Hammam’s prospective candidacy first emerged, it was regarded by many as little more than a speculative attempt to unsettle the long-standing president, Sepp Blatter. But, now that the Qatari has affirmed his position as Blatter’s first official challenger since 2002, his eligibility seems somehow more credible, perhaps chiefly because his ambition is now more explicit: he wants to be FIFA president and he believes he can make a better job of it than Blatter. And, like any hopeful suitor trying to charm a young lady, he exaggerates. He coughs up the sort of fanciful, quote friendly remarks that belong more in an episode of The Hurricanes than a campaign to be president of FIFA. A quick glance at his website shows it to be merely an exercise in marketing, well, himself. And perhaps that’s okay. After all, in the midst of all this media showmanship there is a coherent argument to be found against the incumbent president of FIFA. “There is no new approach from FIFA. I see no new creativity from Blatter anymore.” The statement is refreshing in its clarity and, moreover, it rings true. Such sentiments have subsequently been echoed by FIFA vice president Chung Mong-joon: “I can’t say Bin Hammam is perfect but he is the right candidate to bring change and revolution to FIFA”. Creativity, change, revolution… They are the sort of sound-bytes that have served a cavalcade of aspiring leaders well in the past and, as such, Bin Hammam’s media strategy is, to an extent, understandable. However, his pledges are of the variety that might have resonated more had we not heard them before from an abundance of prospective owners, chairmen, politicians etc.

And that is where we must be ever so weary of the devil’s greatest trick. Bin Hammam’s endorsement of video technology and greater transparency among football’s hierarchy may have whetted many an appetite but shouldn’t we anticipate the same empty promises that have infested international politics for so long? Still, it is not we who need to be convinced and, however fruitful Hammam’s attempts are to present himself as a more palatable Blatter (or platter?), he is still required to accrue some two-thirds of the votes in the FIFA congress before being appointed president. So, this is where Platini comes into play. That’s right, it seems the UEFA president has been harbouring his own aspirations to helm football’s governing body in 2015 rendering him less likely co-ordinate unanimous support of the first-time challenger from each of UEFA’s 53 member associations. However, in an interview Bin Hammam alluded to the possibility of resolving Platini’s reticence by proposing a deal of some sort regarding the elections in 2015, perhaps agreeing to only stand for one term. After all, it just wouldn’t be a FIFA electoral process without some suspicious diplomatic handshakes and a curious entente or two.

A quote from Platini himself may just pique some interest among keen analysts of the imminent FIFA elections. He asserted that: “It’s good to have two candidates. It’s good for democracy.” The statement may provide an agreeable assessment of the process but it also serves as a reminder of how the game’s hierarchy increasingly resembles international politics, often for the wrong reasons. So, it may be time to remember that football is simply football and as such shouldn’t be governed by the same pedantic disputes and conservative tendencies that plague other institutions. FIFA has been suffering something of a prolonged stagnation of late and, as such, Bin Hammam’s appointment may be a warranted change if he is sincere in his vow to rehabilitate the organisation. At any rate, Blatter’s motives for re-election seem somewhat incomprehensible as many would argue that, with his 13 years of service, his mark has been made, albeit with frequent intermissions of controversy, and so it is difficult to see what drastic changes he could implement in another 4 years. In that respect, the situation is simple really: the wily, seasoned candidate, whose familiarity may be more of a hindrance than a benefit, versus the young radical thinker whose optimistic preconceptions are ripe for some disillusionment. Hold on, haven’t we seen this scenario before somewhere?

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