On the surface, sitting in the front row and surrounded by many of those who want him out, Sepp Blatter showed little emotion. On the inside, as the way he has ruled Fifa for 17 years was picked apart by the three candidates bidding for his job, he may well have been seething.
Blatter will have known what was coming after declining to give a campaign speech at Tuesday’s UEFA Congress in Vienna along with election rivals Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan, Michael van Praag and Luis Figo, preferring to opt for a low-key address in his capacity as FIFA president at the start of proceedings when he didn’t even mention the upcoming election yet made sure – with most confederation presidents in the room – that his call for “unity and solidarity” was heard by everyone present.
He also knows he will almost certainly have the last laugh come May 29 in his own backyard.
Just the same, it could not have been a pleasant experience as, one by one, those bidding for his job outlined their plans to make FIFA more accountable and less authoritarian should any of them manage to upset the odds.
It was the first opportunity for the candidates to take centre stage together and if it were a boxing match, Van Praag would have won on points as he spoke of the need to “clean up the mess” after the spate of corruption scandals that have plagued football’s world governing body.
“I simply cannot accept that we leave FIFA in its current shape for the next generation,” said van Praag. “The beautiful heritage of international football has been tarnished by ever-continuing accusations of corruption, bribery, nepotism and waste of money.
“Don’t get me wrong, FIFA has accomplished great things. But the current state of disarray asks for a change in leadership. I cannot look away. It is the responsibility of our generation to clean up the mess.”
Strong words. Whether they can translated into votes is another matter but despite being in his comfort zone surrounded by his friends, the Dutch FA president certainly did his cause no harm in trying to convince FIFA’s 209 members he has what it takes.
In another dig at the veteran Blatter, who has been in office since 1998 and is bidding for a fifth term, Van Praag said he would only stay in charge for one four-year mandate. “Effective change is simply impossible under the leadership of the same person who is responsible for the state FIFA is in,” he said.
“I have absolutely no ambition to become the next president who stays in office for 20 years. I want to be FIFA president for only four years…to start the normalisation process towards a more open, democratic and credible FIFA, to be handed over to the next generation in 2019.
“A more humble FIFA, back to basics, mostly occupied with helping member states to improve the position of football in their countries.”
Prince Ali, who has been keeping a relatively low profile as he criss-crosses the globe looking for support, stuck to pretty much the same theme he has from the start: the need for change at the top. He pulled fewer punches than van Praag but his more subtle approach carried the same message.
“This is a crossroads which could set FIFA on a new and positive path,” he told delegates. “Around the world there is a real appetite for change, new leadership, better support to national associations, meaningful investment in football development, and for FIFA to be a genuine service organisation.”
“While the popularity of the World Cup has soared, the image of the organisation has sadly declined,” added Prince Ali who said he wanted “a change of culture and a departure from FIFA’s authoritarian approach to strategy.”
Figo, imperious as a player in his day but increasingly becoming a lightweight candidate in the election, insisted he was “not a servant of a European association acting as a special agent to conquer Zurich.”
“I know football inside and outside, I know what is good and bad for football. FIFA should not be dependent on a president. That is not healthy in any organisation or company.”
None of the three was discourteous enough to attack Blatter in person. That would have ripped up the protocol form book. But they really didn’t need to in order to get their messages across and it was van Praag who was the most convincing.
Back in June when he last faced an onslaught from UEFA at a pre-World Cup session in Sao Paulo, led by van Praag, Blatter said he had never been treated with such disrespect. This time he was greeted with polite and respectful applause by delegates from UEFA’s 54 member countries.
It was hardly gushing but this was UEFA’s party and Blatter knew it. There are two more months to go and having escaped from enemy territory bruised but not battered, he knows there will be few, if any, more platforms from which his three rivals can collectively exploit the perceived failings of his leadership with such forceful rhetoric.
He knows too he has strong enough support virtually everywhere else to be crowned again. As he flew out of Vienna after a distinctly awkward few days, he will presumably have taken solace from that, however unpalatable such a scenario might be among his opponents in Europe.
Andrew Warshaw was formerly Sports Editor of The European newspaper and is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org