A courageous and defiant move by FIFA’s most principled young reformer or a foolhardy risk that could backfire? Reaction to Prince Ali’s overnight announcement that he has decided to take on Sepp Blatter for the FIFA presidency looks certain to move into overdrive in the coming days.
The big question, initially at least, is what convinced him to go for the top job in world football given the widespread support that Blatter, like it or not, still commands despite all manner of crises and scandals that have plagued FIFA in the 16 years he has been at the helm.
For months, in private briefings, Prince Ali has made it known in no uncertain terms how uncomfortable he has been with the way FIFA is run. He is not alone. Many observers would agree with his assertion that “the world’s game deserves a world-class governing body — an International Federation that is a service organisation and a model of ethics, transparency and good governance.”
His problem is that his modus operandi is not shared by many within the FIFA hierarchy – or among its global membership for that matter. Prince Ali knows full well that he will struggle to gain sufficient international backing to unseat Blatter.
He also knows that even within his own Asian confederation he may not be able to generate enough backing to take him all the way to the throne in Zurich.
So why has he done it?
The answer lies partly in the argument that, with his own position as Asia’s FIFA vice-president about to come to an end and no guarantee that he can even secure a future FIFA exco place, he has nothing to lose. So if it comes to going down, why not go down fighting?
It is no co-incidence that Prince Ali made his announcement three days before the Asian Football Confederation’s extraordinary congress in Australia. AFC president Sheikh Salman Ebrahim al Khalifa, whose decision it was to scrap the independence of Asia’s FIFA vice-presidency and combine Prince Ali’s role with his own, has made it abundantly clear he supports Blatter.
So does Kuwait’s Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, arguably the most powerful player in Asian sports politics. Opposed by both powerbrokers and with his own four-year term of office coming to end at the FIFA Congress in Zurich in May, Prince Ali was facing an awkward future.
Hence his decision to make the ultimate stand in order to retain a position of influence in football’s corridors of power from which he could keep banging the drum about the need for reform and change. Even if he loses, who knows how the landscape of football politics might look in four years’ time. Stranger comebacks have happened. And Prince Ali, part of a royal family with a long and respected pedigree in sports administration, would still be a young man by FIFA standards.
Where all this leaves Jerome Champagne, who spent more than a decade in senior positions at FIFA until being ousted in January 2010 in an unceremonious coup, is an intriguing question.
Champagne, like Prince Ali, has several laudable and sensible ideas for change but has long been considered a rank outsider. Those odds could well now widen even more, prompting speculation of a deal with Blatter, his one-time boss, to get him back into the fold at FIFA in some shape or form.
One thing is for sure. With no love lost between Champagne and UEFA president Michel Platini, the Europeans, desperate to find an alternative candidate to the veteran Blatter who they believe has served his time, will start lobbying with all guns blazing for Prince Ali. But the influence of the Russian ‘block’ that is unlikely to turn on Blatter should not be underestimated.
Europe, or much of it, is still outraged that Blatter changed his mind after promising in 2011 not to stand for a fifth term. But Prince Ali will need more than UEFA’s 54 nations behind him to remove Blatter. Platini knew that too so decided to stick with what he could control – at least perhaps until next time round.
The difference is that Platini has a strong, powerful platform from which to impose his ideas on the future running of the game. Prince Ali, pretty soon as things stand now, will not be so fortunate: a bitter pill to swallow for someone who, throughout his time in football, has been a staunch advocate of good governance and the development of Asian football on and off the field.
Hence, for instance, the creation three years ago of the Asian Football Development Project (AFDP), a not-for-profit organization that works wonders in the region with little fanfare. Hence, too, Prince Ali spearheading the successful campaign to lift the ban on headscarfs in football.
He holds a number of other roles, among them chairman of the fair play and social responsibility committee and deputy chairman of the football committee at FIFA. But no-one would deny that losing his FIFA vice-presidency will come at a cost in terms of maintaining profile.
When that happens at the AFC’s main congress in the spring, Prince Ali may decide to run instead for one of Asia’s FIFA exco seats that will be up for grabs. By then, he will know what chance, if any, he has of upsetting the odds against Blatter in Zurich on May 29.
As usual in football politics, everything is about timing and strategy. You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.
Expect far more of it over the next four months.
Andrew Warshaw was formerly Sports Editor of The European newspaper and is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball. Contact him at email@example.com