“Are there any questions about football?” asked a tired-looking Prince Ali, perhaps more in hope than expectation, after answering yet another about his FIFA presidential credentials as he blinked into a phalanx of whirring cameras.
You kind of felt for Jordan’s young pretender to Sepp Blatter’s throne. Only hours earlier he had got off a plane from Australia and while he is used to criss-crossing the world, his head was probably still spinning.
As campaign launches go, Prince Ali’s was a relatively low-key affair but there were enough meaty quotes for the attending scribes to devour and a call for all the candidates to sit round the table in a political-style debate. The most credible contender to take over from Blatter (others would argue Dutchman Michael van Praag might be) on May 29 put his points across with assured directness. But will that be enough?
Humble and honest are two words frequently applied to Prince Ali’s approach but as he travels the globe over the next four months, he’s going to have to add persuasive and compelling to that list. He’s going to need to up his game considerably to make enough people sit up and listen as he bids to wrest votes away from Blatter, the ultimate football politician.
He says he can do it, though not with great conviction, and will need all the help he can get from his team of highly savvy advisers putting together his media strategy.
With his FIFA vice-presidency formally coming to an end on election day, that strategy is clearly one of win or bust. For the first time, Prince Ali revealed he would not be running this spring for any of any of the Asian slots falling vacant on the FIFA executive committee. Hence if loses to Blatter he will have no remaining platform from which to influence world football.
What a contrast to the role he has occupied for the last four years but inevitable in a way after being squeezed out by Asian football’s supremo Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, a confirmed Blatter ally who sees Prince Ali as a threat to his own power base.
Being unable to count on his own confederation’s support is, of course, a key issue and one which dominated questioning at yesterday’s somewhat hastily convened campaign launch, ironically staged only a few miles away from where Jerome Champagne got his own campaign off the ground just over a year ago.
We all know, of course, what has just happened to the luckless Champagne. Curse of the London launch? That’s probably a bit too strong but while there is little indication of Prince Ali falling by the wayside in the weeks and months ahead, the feeling persists that he will ultimately go the same way on election day – though perhaps not before giving Blatter a bloody nose and a run for his money.
Privately, those close to Prince Ali believe that’s the most likely outcome. But they make the point that Salman, despite being in control of Asian football, has no vote as such since he no longer heads his own Bahraini federation. So, their argument goes, at least give Prince Ali a chance to try and influence the hearts of minds of those in his own region who DO have a vote.
He freely acknowledges that he has so far been unable to “reform FIFA from within” and dismisses suggestions that he is little more than a ‘European’ candidate orchestrated by UEFA. “I don’t think it’s only in Europe that there are concerns about FIFA. I think it’s global.”
And there, perhaps, is the rub. Blatter has never faced a three-way challenge, as he does now, but he remains solidly popular in most regions outside Europe. As long as he wants the job, he’s likely to keep it.
If that happens, Prince Ali will walk away from FIFA, more than likely concentrating on running the 13-nation West Asian Football Federation and persuing his role as founder of the not-for-profit Asian Football Development Project.
But for the next four months his focus is on gunning for Blatter’s job.
“If we talk about reform, proper reform, I’m not confident I’ve seen it. He’s had the chance to do it. The owners of the game are the fans, players, team managers and so on and we need to reverse the pyramid. We are there to serve the game not dictate how things are done. We need to restore confidence and I think I can do that.”
So far, we don’t know how because Prince Ali hasn’t spelled it out. He will put together his manifesto, he says, once he has spoken with the federations, not the other way round.
He says FIFA needs a major overhaul to rebuild trust. Few would disagree. But by the same token, few would also lay a wager that he’ll end up being the man to do it.
Andrew Warshaw was formerly Sports Editor of The European newspaper and is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball. Contact him at email@example.com