Andrew Warshaw: Final showdown of a suicide mission

‘Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.’ Chances are, Sepp Blatter will not be familiar with the lyric. Unless, that is, he is an avid follower of rock music.

Yet barring the mother of all upsets, The Who’s immortal line from Won’t Get Fooled Again seems bound to apply to the incumbent FIFA president when he bids for a fifth term of office on Friday.

Until a week ago, Blatter was facing three opponents for the most powerful job in world football, only for the field to narrow to just one adversary in the space of a dramatic few hours.

After four months of lobbying (not nearly enough), both Michael van Praag – by far the most vocal critic of FIFA – and the patently unqualified Luis Figo pulled out in a last-ditch tactical move designed to dethrone the veteran Swiss after 17 often fractious years at the helm, leaving Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan to go head to head with someone twice his age.
Figo was always the rank outsider and his withdrawal had been widely anticipated. Highly decent man though he came across on the lobbying trail, he was clearly out of his depth and his scathing attack on the election process – and by association on Blatter himself – demonstrated his lack of understanding about how to put together a convincing campaign and the kind of people he was dealing with.

Perhaps his move also lay in the fact that he did not get the support he expected. And the same presumably applies to van Praag.

It was telling that the Dutch FA boss, considered by many to have had sufficient gravitas and experience to mount a credible challenge but who made it clear he only wanted to be a transitional president, refused to reveal last week how much backing he had actually received. The reality is that outside Europe, van Praag does not carry anywhere near the same clout. Stealing votes from Blatter territory was a tough ask even though by all accounts he impressed the federations with his genuinely laudable aims and bold pro-governance ideas.

Indeed, back in March van Praag himself admitted that overcoming the better-the-devil-you-know attitude among the confederations was likely to prove an impossible task. “If you want to do this properly you should have started two years ago,” he conceded at the time.

The fact is, as one of my respected colleagues recently pointed out, like it or not ever since Blatter teasingly announced 15 months ago that he would change his mind about ending his tenure if enough members asked him to run, the writing has virtually been on the wall.

So confident has the veteran Swiss been of victory that his advisers, whoever they have been, took the view that he didn’t even need to issue a manifesto, much to the irritation of Figo and others.

So now we are left with the prince versus the president. On paper it seems no contest. But to suggest Asia’s outgoing FIFA vice-president should not have bothered to stand misses two crucial points. Firstly that it would have been entirely unsatisfactory from a democratic standpoint for Blatter to have stood unopposed once again. And secondly, only by running can Prince Ali and the world at large gauge how much opposition there actually is among FIFA’s 209 members to their current leader.

To be fair, Prince Ali knew as soon as he put his name forward to take on Blatter back in January that it was win or bust. Having already relinquished his Asian FIFA vice-presidency courtesy of a sinister change of statutes, he decided he had nothing to lose by going the whole hog. Lose to Blatter and he will walk away from FIFA after just four years on its executive committee with little desire to be a part of the existing regime.

Which is exactly what, in all likelihood, will happen despite the three challengers collectively agreeing that the reformist royal stands a better chance on his own of upsetting the odds.

Will that end up becoming a flawed tactical strategy? Prince Ali firmly believes he can split the Asian vote. I have been reliably informed that at least 12 of its 46 members may ultimately ditch the confederation’s pro-Blatter party line. Prince Ali also hopes that with UEFA behind him (or most of it), plus any van Praag and Figo supporters from elsewhere (however many there were), he can give Blatter a run for his money.

The challenge, however, is not so much to beat Blatter but, in a way more importantly, to prevent the wily old campaigner romping home in the first round. If Prince Ali can prove a point by stopping Blatter getting a two-thirds majority by getting 69 votes and taking the ballot into a second round and a straight knockout, he will feel he has struck a blow for those who believe FIFA has become an untrustworthy organisation.

Yet this misses yet another point. The stark reality is that in much of the world, Blatter is widely supported especially by smaller nations who are less interested in allegations of corruption and more interested in receiving the financial resources to stay afloat. Even if the ballot were to go to a second round, if Blatter has built up a big first-round lead to even contemplate a raft his supporters suddenly switching sides is fantasy. Back in 1998, remember, Lennart Johansson got 80 votes in the first round but conceded defeat. Conversely, if the first round is tight, Prince Ali’s camp will smell unexpected glory. One thing’s for sure. He will be lobbying until the early hours.

But to get an idea of why Blatter remains in such demand, listen to Jim Boyce, Britain’s outgoing FIFA vice-president, shortly to be succeeded by David Gill. Boyce is a huge fan of Prince Ali as a person but this is what he told Insideworldfootball about Blatter.

“Whether you like him or not, the man has a certain amount of charisma. He does like power, you can see that when he walks into a room. But I’ve been at a lot of functions where he always seems to have the knack of going over to speak to people. From that point of view, he’s personable and people appreciate the time he seems to have for them.”

Listen too to Jerome Champagne, FIFA’s former deputy general secretary who originally announced he was standing but couldn’t obtain the required five nominations.

“You can’t blame Blatter for everything,” says Champagne. “Why does everyone believe that in replacing one person we are going to change football? He remains popular because he has been helping federations for years.”

But Champagne does concede that Blatter will not just be able to sit on his laurels after Friday. “If he doesn’t implement the reforms that FIFA and football need, he would miss a final opportunity to clear his name and clean up his reputation. And FIFA’s.”

Andrew Warshaw was formerly Sports Editor of The European newspaper and is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball. Contact him at moc.l1702071591labto1702071591ofdlr1702071591owdis1702071591ni@wa1702071591hsraw1702071591.werd1702071591na1702071591