Osasu Obayiuwana: Up for Champagne, anyone?

It’s one thing to throw pre-fight verbal salvos or shadow box in the dressing room.

But walking through the political gauntlet and stepping into the ring, especially when you don’t know the opponents you’re competing against, is certainly a huge leap of faith.

That’s what Jerome Champagne, the 55-year-old Frenchman and FIFA’s former deputy secretary-general and director of international affairs, took when he announced his decision, in London on Monday, to seek the most powerful position in football and, arguably, in world sport.

By becoming the first – and only – person to make an unequivocal bid for the FIFA presidency in 2015, as incumbent Sepp Blatter and UEFA president Michel Platini are yet to make up their minds, whilst other potential contenders stay in the shadows, Champagne has certainly seized the initiative.

Ordinary followers of the game will certainly be wondering who Jerome Champagne is, as he is not well known outside the corridors of global football politics.

But, come to think of it, isn’t that where the FIFA presidency will, ultimately, be decided?

Champagne got his FIFA break in 1998, after his work, as the chief of protocol at the World Cup finals in France, impressed Blatter enough to offer him a career in Zurich.

Over his 11-year association with FIFA, which abruptly ended in 2010, Champagne built a valuable network of contacts, primarily as a result of the troubleshooting work he did with national federations throughout the world, which earned him a reputation of being a very intelligent, efficient but approachable technocrat, who certainly does not think that football begins and ends in Europe.

But not even the skills acquired in his years with the French diplomatic service could smooth the ruffled feathers of several people within the FIFA bureaucracy, who felt threatened by his presence and were determined to see the back of him.

With the added discontent of several confederation presidents, who felt FIFA was strengthening its global authority, at the expense of their own continental influence and power, Blatter was forced to let his protégé go, in an attempt to restore peace within a fractured executive committee.

Champagne was seen as a vital lieutenant of Blatter, in his plan to empower FIFA, so the Barcelona socio’s departure was regarded as throwing the desired spanner in the works.

It is interesting to observe that in the years that have followed Champagne’s forced departure from FIFA, there has been no public falling out with his old boss, even though he certainly felt he was turfed out unfairly.

His most recent role as a consultant, in which he worked to solve knotty issues – such as the Palestinian FA’s legitimate frustrations with Israel, which comes within the wider spectre of the regional conflict, Kosovo’s ambition to compete as a fully-fledged national team, which Serbia and some within UEFA are deeply against, as well as bringing Greek and Turkish Cypriots to form a single FA for the Island – could not be effectively carried out for his clients if Champagne had burnt all his bridges at FIFA HQ, especially the one that matters most.

During my conversation with Blatter at the 2012 Olympics, his description of the qualities of the person whom he would like to succeed him were crystal clear:

“I hope that I can hand over FIFA to someone with the qualities and aptitude to lead FIFA in the future and [who would] not forget what FIFA is – FIFA is about the game for everybody, the world game. It is not only for those that think they are the ones dominating football… Football cannot only be about what is at the top level.”

An examination of Champagne’s very detailed position paper, FIFA in the 21st Century, written in 2012 and can be read on his campaign website, jeromechampagne2015.com, clearly indicates he shares the vision of his old boss, about an inclusive game for a very diverse world and not just one for the powerful and the privileged in Europe.

Champagne reiterated this vision on Monday, when he outlined a desire to re-establish “world governance based on the universality of football with a democratised, more transparent and more ethical FIFA, that is committed to redressing the balance of the game between the various people involved.”

But the obvious question, which would certainly apply to any other candidate for the FIFA presidency, is whether he will be able to build and maintain the groundswell of support needed to achieve victory in 2015, in a contest in which Blatter is clearly not a candidate.

Champagne would certainly exit the race, should his old boss decide to seek another term, which is why some of the headlines in the world’s media, announcing that he is challenging Blatter for the presidency, are, in my view, inaccurate.

When the media pushed him on the subject, he refused to take a definite position on whether he would bow out, should Blatter seek another term.

However, 11 years of involvement with FIFA, in which he closely worked with the 78-year-old Swiss, would have educated him well enough to know that:

(a) Competing against his old boss is almost certain to end in tears.

(b) Blatter will not be a disinterested or inactive party in the race to succeed him, whenever he decides to quit.

(c) Whoever plans to succeed Blatter will certainly not harm their chances by having his support, even if covert.

(d) Blatter would only back a candidate that shares his vision – and keep to his earlier promise of quitting in 2015 – when he is confident that such a candidate has a demonstrable chance of winning.

As the only contender in the field, Champagne can openly campaign and sell his agenda, which certainly is not a disadvantage, in an attempt to build needed momentum for his presidential bid.

But if “a week is a long time in politics”, as the late Winston Churchill once put it, the months leading up to the May 2015 poll is certainly an eternity.

Nothing is certain and the tide of fortune can change in the twinkle of an eye.

But Champagne must have thought long and hard about that, before throwing his hat into the electoral ring.

Seeking the presidency of world football’s body, and dealing with the unforgiving, brutal nature of its politics, isn’t something one does in a flight of fancy.

Osasu Obayiuwana, a lawyer and BBC broadcaster, as well as the Associate Editor of NewAfrican magazine, is one of the world’s leading journalists on African football. His regular commentary on the state of the African game can also be read at footballisafrica.com. Contact him at moc.l1552961956labto1552961956ofdlr1552961956owedi1552961956sni@a1552961956nawui1552961956yabo.1552961956usaso1552961956

Osasu is also a member of FIFA’s anti-discrimination task force.