When candidates of opposition political parties in US and British elections, and in many other countries for that matter, want to convince the voting public that they are best person for the job, they frequently go head-to-head on television as an important way of their getting their messages across. So what’s so precious about football?
Twice in the past few days, not one but two televised broadcasts involving the candidates for FIFA president have been scrapped. The first was last Wednesday in Brussels, partly organised by the European parliament’s Sports Intergroup and due to be screened by ESPN. The second was scheduled for the middle of next month but was called off by a frustrated BBC who had bent over backwards to try and bring the contenders together.
The words farce and joke have been used both by seasoned observers and the media alike to describe the last-minute disintegration of this week’s forum and the ditching of the BBC follow-up. It’s easy to understand why. It’s not just the broadcasters and the organisers who have been taken for a ride. It’s the public at large.
Ah, I hear the counter-argument go. There’s a difference between political elections and sporting elections. The FIFA contest is all about lobbying the 209 member federations who will actually vote in Zurich. The public don’t really matter.
What cynical nonsense. Whoever wins on February 26 – whether it be Asian football chief Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa, UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino, South African political prisoner turned businessman Tokyo Sexwale, Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, who lost last time to Blatter, or former FIFA executive Jerome Champagne – they surely serve the whole football family and not just the member federations.
Come on, they have been banging on about just this point over the past few weeks and months. “A vote for me is a vote for football” has been their mantra.
Hypocrisy verging on cowardice? Because just when they had an opportunity – make that two – to show that they do indeed act for everyone in the game, they mockingly declined to go head-to-head and show their respective hands for fear of losing the public relations war and discovering that their opponents might, just might have a more convincing case.
Forget about FIFA electoral chief Domenico Scala not giving a prior ruling one way or other about whether such a forum does or does not break electoral rules. That’s just a red herring. The Brussels debate may have been partly organised by faceless bureaucrats but Belgian MEP Marc Tarabvella had a point when he described the idea that holding it under the auspices of European Parliament could in any way constitute political interference as “utterly ridiculous”.
“It’s a good thing to have several candidates, it’s bad thing not to turn up and only inform us 24 hours before the start of the debate. It was an unique opportunity for restore FIFA’s image that has been tarnished for years,” he said. Say no more.
There is, I concede, a case for arguing that the date of this week’s forum was ill-timed given that South American delegates were meeting in Paraguay and were clearly more of a priority for the candidates in terms of vote-seeking than sitting round a table in Brussels. But you can make any excuse any time if it suits. One gets the strong impression that whatever date had been offered – and the BBC offered quite a few – other reasons for withdrawal would have arrived thick and fast.
And this really goes to the heart of the matter. The candidates should admit they simply didn’t have the appetite for such a discussion. They clearly don’t see the value in exposing their views and opinions in each other’s company at such a sensitive time. Apart, that is, from Champagne who should be applauded for making the effort but who, let’s face it, isn’t likely to win.
Instead, right up until election date, we will now have to put up with all manner of mixed messages, rumours about backroom deals, unofficial alliances, denials and trumpet-blowing. Twas ever thus, sadly.
One can only hope that whoever gets over the line in just under a month puts his money where his mouth is, implements the reform ideas – most of which are worthwhile and long overdue – and shows the world at large that after years of alleged corruption and ignominy, FIFA really can turn over a new leaf and serve all the game’s stakeholders, not just those who vote.
Don’t hold your breath.
Andrew Warshaw is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball and was formerly Sports Editor of the European. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org