When Michel Platini announced last summer that he had decided against taking on Sepp Blatter for the Fifa presidency, most seasoned observers of election processes shrugged their shoulders and looked beyond Uefa for a credible challenger to Blatter’s turbulent reign.
After all, if the most powerful official in European football could not muster a campaign, what chance anyone else from within his organisation?
Hence the general feeling of being taken aback by Michael van Praag’s decision, three days before the deadline for contenders, to throw his hat into the ring.
That there was a late twist to proceedings (there may still be more to come in the next 48 hours) did not come as any great surprise. Brinkmanship and behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings are de rigueur in an election process.
The surprise was that van Praag decided to take the bull by the horns and charge into the spotlight. Make no mistake, the Dutchman is highly respected by his colleagues. It was he, remember, who led last summer’s European rebellion against Blatter’s rule, telling the veteran Swiss to his face that it was time to go. But that didn’t, per se, add to the likelihood of Uefa putting him up as a candidate after Platini’s decision to remain where he is.
By all accounts, Platini is instead foremost among those who encouraged FIFA Vice President Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan to take his chance and run. It is little wonder, therefore, that Uefa general secretary Gianni Infantino, and not Platini, handled the press conference following Monday’s executive committee meeting, hedging his bets and awkwardly sidestepping questions about exactly who his organisation would be officially endorsing. Trying his utmost to steer a diplomatic path.
So why did van Praag make his move and in the process take an apparent swipe at Prince Ali who, like everyone except Jerome Champagne, has not yet issued a manifesto?. “For quite some time, I was hoping that another credible challenger would put himself forward, but that simply has not happened,” said the Dutch FA boss.
Ouch. Talk about putting the boot into the one challenger who had the faintest chance of upsetting Blatter in a contest that comes to a head in Zurich on May 29.
Prince Ali knows full well his candidacy will not gain majority support within his own confederation. He therefore needs Europe behind him. Big time. Now look where he is. Don’t forget that last June in Sao Paulo, every region except Uefa backed Blatter to the hilt. Nothing has changed in that respect.
We don’t know yet (though we will shortly) whether the other prospective contenders will stay in the race. But as things stand now, it seems only way van Praag’s announcement can work against Blatter is if he joins forces with Prince Ali – despite suggesting the committed Jordanian reformist is not a credible candidate. In other words, the next four months pan out as follows: the pair of them lobby for as much global backing as possible, picking off as many votes as they can on a ticket of much-needed credibility and transparency. Then one of them pulls out just before the election and transfers his support to the other.
It’s still a long-shot strategy but it seems the only way, on paper at least, to dethrone Blatter. Otherwise, van Praag’s move smacks of playing into the present incumbent’s hands in his bid for a fifth term.
Which would, of course, be anathema to a group of well-intentioned, like-minded campaigners desperate for Fifa to clean itself up.
Last week I was at the European Parliament in Brussels to witness the launch of the NewFifaNow movement, a body determined to bring about change in the way world football’s governing body is run after years of controversy and scandal.
I heard speech after speech, criticism after criticism, attack after attack. To say Fifa received a bloody nose would be an under-statement.
But will the new campaign, spearheaded by British MP Damien Collins, have any effect? Many, you see, believe the only way Fifa be changed is from within and that no amount of outside pressure will have any effect.
Collins and his colleagues accept that argument but counter that the scale of the problem at Fifa has become so bad that something had to be done. To that end, although FIFA has been conducting its own reform programme under Blatter, the Brussels summit issued a hard-hitting communiqué stressing that what had been achieved did not go far enough and called for the establishment of a FIFA Reform Commission that would be overseen by an independent authority.
Part of its mandate would be to publish “all current and outstanding corruption inquiries”, oversee an audit of “all football development programmes” across the world, publish the minutes of all its main meetings, allow former players to become exco members and permit fans to vote for five exco positions. The new coalition said it would be lobbying sponsors and governments and contact every one of FIFA’s associations to explain the rationale behind the new ideas.
That’s quite a task given that NewFifaNow has no actual power and no actual teeth. That doesn’t mean it has no worthwhile purpose. Theoretically it could influence the way FIFA is governed in the future and it does represent the first time so many different groups have come together to publicly state their lack of faith in Blatter’s organisation.
Everyone present agreed that more transparency was needed, that action was required. Yet who were they actually addressing? Although there were observers from Uefa, Concacaf and Qatar 2022 in the room, there was not a single representative from any of Fifa’s 209 national federations. No leagues either, no clubs. And of course no-one from Fifa to listen and report back.
I can see considerable merit in an independent body keeping the heat on Fifa. But if it is to have a serious impact, the new coalition has to be more than an antagonistic talk shop that will hardly strike fear into Fifa’s old guard. To have genuine clout, it has to build a far broader coalition of important, influential people. Otherwise, in an election year when sensitivities are high, it will do little to bring about the change it so desperately seeks.
Andrew Warshaw was formerly Sports Editor of The European newspaper and is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org