So why is it that, with just under two weeks to go, it has not been possible to find a candidate who can seriously challenge Sepp Blatter? Jerome Champagne, after a year of campaigning, may now not even get on the ballot, Prince Ali cannot win his own Asian confederation and, as far as the candidacy of David Ginola is concerned that sounds like a nice bookmaker’s wheeze.
The reason for this is that while Blatter has hugely upset the world, indeed at after dinner speaking gigs in Britain you are guaranteed a laugh if you even mention the name of the Swiss, he has not upset the people that matter to him: the national associations, or at least not in sufficient numbers. Blatter knows that and we can be sure he will milk this election as if he is Ronaldo playing for Real Madrid against Granada, the bottom club in La Liga.
In that sense Blatter is no different to incumbents in politics, Presidents or Prime Ministers, who only fall from power when they upset their own very special voting public. Take for instance Mrs Thatcher. She wins three successive elections, vows to go on and on, looks impregnable but then introduces the poll tax. The impact is so devastating that Conservative MPs fear they may lose their seats and they turn on her and she, to the world’s surprise, is removed from Downing Street. For all of FIFA’s much publicised corruption problems Blatter, as far as the vast majority of the national associations are concerned, has not had his poll tax moment.
And it is interesting that the two candidates who are standing against Blatter do not single him out as the man responsible for FIFA’s problems.
Take Jerome Champagne. He has been campaigning for a year but will he say anything against Blatter? Judge for yourself. When I recently spoke to him he agreed with me that FIFA under Blatter had become an organisation people laugh at. But when I asked does this not mean that the chief executive of the organisation must be held responsible his answer was that it is the executive committee that is responsible. And his much trumpeted reforms are not about how the President of FIFA should operate but how the exco is elected.
“In your country, the British people vote for someone to be in Downing Street. That person has a right to pick his or her own cabinet to implement the programme he or she has been elected on. That’s the democratic system. The president of FIFA, according to the statutes, is selected by the 209 national associations. But that person cannot choose his or her own government, because the executive committee of FIFA is controlled by the confederations. That’s why my proposal is to give the power to elect members of the ex-co to sitting presidents of the FAs and the exco members should be elected at the same time as the President of FIFA and for a similar mandate of four years. We need to give back the power to the FAs because FIFA and the World Cup belong to the national FAs.”
And then he makes the point that Blatter himself has been making ever since he beat Lennart Johansson and became President of FIFA in Paris in 1998. “Between 1998 and 2002, Mr Blatter had to deal with Johansson who had just been defeated by Mr Blatter. It’s exactly as if Mr Obama would have had to spend his first mandate in the White House having within his cabinet John McCain [who stood against Obama] and torpedoing everything because McCain knew that he would be running at the end of the four years. It is exactly how FIFA has functioned and how FIFA functions today. That’s why the ex-co is responsible for all the problems we have, and the people who point the finger only on one person, the FIFA president, as responsible for the problems, are absolutely wrong. It’s a collective responsibility. That’s why I propose to implement strong institutional reforms.”
Champagne speaks as the insider he was. I remember meeting him in 2002 when he was very prominent in Blatter’s re-election campaign against Issa Hayatou in Seoul. At the time also there were allegations about how badly Blatter had run FIFA, with the charges coming from Blatter’s own general secretary Michel Zen-Ruffinen. But the national associations, delighted with the money they got from Goal Project, did not see anything wrong and voted in such numbers for Blatter that he thumped Hayatou. And, despite the fact that Hayatou was a candidate of UEFA, not only did he not get all of Europe but he did not secure a majority in his own African continent.
Back then Champagne campaigning hard for Blatter took no prisoners. After I wrote some articles critical of Blatter he tackled me in a very aggressive fashion and I can still recall his triumphant celebration after Hayatou had been smashed telling me how he, Champagne, had greater say in Africa than Hayatou, the man from Africa.
With history repeating itself and Prince Ali being backed by UEFA it will be interesting to see whether we have a similar election outcome. This would mean another Blatter campaign manager telling us that he has more say in Asia than Ali, the man of Asia.
For Blatter to be toppled we will require a candidate who can find a FIFA issue which will get enough national associations behind him. Only once has a challenger managed to do that and that was Blatter’s mentor Joao Havelange. In 1974 the Brazilian defeated Stanley Rous because he persuaded enough associations from Asia and Africa that, unlike Rous, Havelange would not be soft on apartheid South Africa, which Rous was. Havelange told this important block that he would make sure that the non-white world had its say. That was an issue that had appeal to the membership who resented the European domination of FIFA.
There is no such issue round which a rival of Blatter can mount a successful coalition and unless that poll tax moment happens in FIFA Blatter is secure. And that means, unlike Mrs Thatcher, Blatter will just keep going on and on and nothing will remove him.
Yes, the elections may see Ginola even add a bit of gaiety but there will be no change in Zurich come May.
Mihir Bose was the first sports editor of the BBC. He has worked for various media outlets and launched the Inside Sport column for the Daily Telegraph. Now a freelance journalist he has written 29 books. The Spirit of the Game, published by Constable and Robinson, is now available in paperback. Follow Mihir on twitter @mihirbose