At the start of the FIFA presidential race, all we heard was the need for a clean campaign, with each candidate energetically promoting his own cause. No finger-pointing, no duplicity, no mud-slinging.
That was then, this is now. The time for diplomacy, it seems, is over. There are votes at stake.
With two weeks to go until arguably most pivotal and far-reaching decision in the history of FIFA’s administration, the contenders to take over from Sepp Blatter, will soon be wrapping up their endless globe-trotting as their spin doctors, eager to prove their strategic worth, up the ante in order to elicit the most positive media coverage.
Amidst an endless stream of whispers and disinformation, trying to unravel who is benefitting most from what is in danger of turning into an unedifying public spectacle of one-upmanship has become the key narrative as the candidates plan their final series of meetings with FIFA’s 209 federations.
From Geneva to Miami, motives have being questioned, ill-thought-out election pledges ridiculed, controversial proposals announced. All of which makes this particular election so hard to predict especially with five contenders in the race although pretty soon that could be four if, as expected, Tokyo Sexwale withdraws from the race. His fate seemed sealed from the moment his own African Continent issued the most humiliating of snubs by failing to endorse him, no matter how brave a face the South African puts on it.
The only thing we virtually know for sure is that none of the six confederations, perhaps with the exception of Oceania, will vote as a bloc. Forget the top brass in Africa and Asia pretending to stand as one behind Sheikh Salman, the current front-runner. It simply won’t happen. Forget Europe telling everyone who will listen that they will be collectively loyal to Gianni Infantino. That won’t happen either.
And the candidates know it which is perhaps why, given all the ifs, buts and maybes, they have resorted to a high-intensity – some might say risky – approach in a last-ditch attempt to grab the moral high ground.
Take Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, who lost out to Blatter in May. Talk to the Jordanian’s supporters and they will try to convince you that his plain-speaking directness in the final days of campaigning is paying dividends; that having the courage to put his head above the parapet and going where others have feared to tread is picking up significant late support among smaller federations who want a voice.
Talk to Prince Ali’s critics and they counter that questioning the credibility of his opponents whilst at the same time picking a fight with Domenico Scala in terms of his influential role as chief election scrutineer is seriously jeopardising his chances.
Whatever the truth, Prince Ali, who received 73 votes against Blatter’s 133 in May despite being promised much more support, knows better than anyone how election pledges can be broken on the day. Hence his strategy in trying to convince federations that they don’t have to be bullied into voting against their consciences.
Whether he is going about it the right way is questionable. For all those who approve of his “tell it like it is” approach, others find it unpalatable and indiscreet. Wheeling out of one of his most trusted supporters, Liberian FA boss Musa Bility, to accuse FIFA of past intimidation and praise him for having taken on Blatter when no-one else dared to was either a master stroke or a major faux pas depending on who you spoke to. Bility, remember, was barred from being a presidential candidate himself after failing an integrity test.
The reality perhaps is that Prince Ali knows that he is playing catch-up and is not prepared to go down without a fight. As a result he is gambling on calling out the misdeeds and iniquities of those he considers untrustworthy.
Yet he isn’t the only candidate to ruffle feathers. Not any more anyway. Yesterday’s CONCACAF gathering in Miami, when each presidential candidate had 20 minutes to make their pitch in front of 41 FIFA members, was, in sense, a watershed. How one would love to have been a fly on the wall to judge the reaction of delegates as Sheikh Salman, who has already questioned Infantino’s spending plans, took his rival’s World Cup expansion proposal to task – as did Jerome Champagne.
Diplomacy? What diplomacy?
The next gathering of voters is scheduled for Kuala Lumpur next week, this time involving Asia’s FIFA members. No doubt they will all be encouraged to stand behind Shaikh Salman on February 26. No doubt they will all promise to do so. But you can bet that some will go their own way when the crunch comes at ballot time. Jordan for one…
In the meantime, as they approach election day (provided Blatter doesn’t pull one final rabbit out the hat and clear his name on appeal), all of the candidates could do worse than remember the one key selling point that has characterised their respective campaigns over the last four months and which whoever gets the top job will be expected to implement forthwith: reform of FIFA.
Not only in practical ways but also in terms of culture and mindset. Given the increasingly fractious run-in amidst the usual rumours of pacts and deals, it doesn’t augur well.
Andrew Warshaw is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball and was formerly Sports Editor of the European. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org