Andrew Warshaw: Three weeks to go, but is three the magic number

Back in his comfort zone on the banks of the Dead Sea in his native Jordan, the Prince who would be king charmed the pants off visiting delegates and dignatories with his trademark mixture of humility and hospitality.

The ovation that greeted Fifa presidential candidate Prince Ali bin al-Hussein’s address to this week’s Soccerex Asian Forum, a measured but passionate call for leadership change at the top, must have given him a warm glow.

Among the bigwigs in the audience were specially invited representatives from Africa, Concacaf and south America. Proof perhaps, as Prince Ali has long predicted, that not every federation outside of Europe is behind Sepp Blatter and that he has managed to pick off pockets of support from across the globe in supposed Blatter territory.

It was just what Prince Ali needed to restore his faith in taking the fight to Blatter after being alienated by his own confederation 48 hours earlier.

Yet therein lies the whole issue of his candidacy.

No-one who attended the Asian Football Confederation Congress in Bahrain can fail to have noticed the sense of frustration and irritation on the face of Prince Ali – sitting just behind the AFC’s unopposed re-elected president Sheikh Salman – after he was denied the chance to take the podium, as Blatter had done, to address his so-called “colleagues” and witnessing what he perceived as a total lack of democracy over the way in which Asia chose its new Fifa executive committee members and silenced any critics of the procedural change.

This was different to Concacaf and Africa where similar denials to speak had been made. This was his own region. Publicly the young Jordanian reformist said all the right things but privately he must have been seething at seeing his Asian rivals virtually gang up on him and flourish while he was forced to take a backseat. Reports that he did not attend an AFC gala dinner the night before the congress speaks volumes.

Winning an election against Blatter is hard enough. Winning it without being able to bank on the bulk on your own region is nigh-on impossible. As Bahrain made abundantly clear, most of Asia’s 47 nations – led by Sheikh Salman — wishes he’d never got in the way in the first place.

Once he got back to Jordan and was among his friends again, Prince Ali made his feelings known, describing in no uncertain terms how shabbily he thought he – and the other Fifa presidential candidates for that matter – had been treated by Salman and his supporters.

But here’s what Dato’ Alex Soosay, the AFC’s general secretary, said when I asked him why Asia could not bring itself to support its own Fifa presidential candidate who could soon be walking away at 39, almost exactly half the age of Blatter.

“I can understand how he feels but it was his own personal wish to run and we all respect that,” said Soosay. “No-one can deny that right (but) congress is the ultimate voting body and they have made a unanimous decision (to support Blatter). Prince Ali is a gentleman. Everyone likes him and we don’t want to lose him. We need his ideas. There are a lot of committees he can still serve to utilise his knowledge.”

Despite Soosay’s efforts at diplomacy, such remarks were hardly a ringing endorsement of Prince Ali and will hardly strike a sense of belonging into the outgoing Fifa vice-president whose federation, significantly, was one of only three in Bahrain to vote against the controversial statutes change that split the election process for Fifa exco. Indeed, the election of the all-powerful Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah of Kuwait to the FIFA exco, a firm ally of both Salman and Blatter, was yet another sign of how Prince Ali’s rivals view his future role.

The reality is that in exactly three weeks from now, barring an upset to match Qatar being awarded the 2022 World Cup or British prime minister David Cameron’s poll-defying victory in the UK election, Prince Ali will find himself surplus to requirements, having already lost his Fifa vice-presidency to Salman, and will bid farewell to the top table of football’s world governing body after a mere four years trying to get his reformist ideas across.

But he is not giving up yet. No sooner had a report earlier this week suggested that he might consider pulling out in order to swing behind one of the other two candidates taking on Blatter than Prince Ali’s office was quick to issue a trouble-shooting statement saying nothing could be further from the truth. What he actually meant was that it might be beneficial to the general cause if a strategy was agreed whereby one or more contenders ultimately withdraw in order to stand a better chance of unseating Blatter.

It was, of course, always anticipated that someone would step aside and that now looks increasingly likely.

On Monday, a stone’s throw from the headquarters of Uefa – which as we know is backing anyone but Blatter – Prince Ali, Dutch FA president Michael van Praag and rank outsider Luis Figo will meet to plot a course for somehow dethroning the veteran Swiss incumbent.

It should be a fascinating meeting. Van Praag believes he can pick up support from central America as well as across Europe; Figo that he can secure backing from among Portugal’s former African colonies.

Yet none of the three can be sure that pulling out won’t be counter-productive, that their supporters won’t instead switch over to Blatter. On such decisions are elections won and lost. The next three weeks, as football players and managers love to say, could yet involve several more twists and turns.

Andrew Warshaw was formerly Sports Editor of The European newspaper and is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball. Contact him at [email protected]om