The clock is ticking and the behind-the-scenes horsetrading is in full swing. But like a canny game of poker, nobody is revealing their hand until they are sure of their ground. With Monday night’s deadline for FIFA presidential candidates fast approaching, cards are being clasped tightly to chests in anticipation of who will emerge as challengers for Sepp Blatter’s crown.
At this stage, it’s a pretty small list. Of the credible contenders, so far only Jordan’s Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, the former FIFA vice-president who lost to Blatter in May but is determined to have another crack, and latterly Jerome Champagne, who couldn’t get enough people to nominate him last time, have announced they have submitted the names of the federations who have agreed to back them.
Well actually so has Michel Platini who, after receiving some sharp legal advice, took the clever precaution of putting in his candidacy just before being suspended in the event he somehow clears his name in time for the February 26 election.
Sheikh Salman, the Asian football chief who originally supported Platini, is still weighing up his chances (or was at the time of writing). Speculation is intensifying that it is only a matter of time before the Bahraini throws his hat into the ring. That could theoretically give us a head-to-head Asian battle royal between two very different personalities among whom there is no love lost. But you can bet your last dollar, in this game of cat and mouse, that the list will have grown by Tuesday morning.
It seems almost certain, however, to exclude former FIFA powerbroker Chung Mong-joon whose comeback after four years on the outside, for all his protestations about a FIFA-orchestrated conspiracy against him, appears to be fading fast. That leaves us with ex-Trinidad and Tobago international David Nakhid along with a couple of other no-hopers. Not exactly attention-grabbing. Unless… Over the past 48 hours, names of other potential contenders have been coming out of even the thickest woodwork. Is Tokyo Sexwale, the South African human rights icon turned successful businessman, on the verge of taking the plunge and becoming his Continent’s main challenger?
The latest to throw his hat into the ring is Champagne, who tried and failed to get the required nominations ahead of the deadline for the previous election despite being the first to issue a manifesto. This time Champagne has them and clearly feels he has a fighting chance. With Blatter, whom he knew he couldn’t beat last time, out of the picture, and his nemesis Platini possibly barred, the entire landscape has changed and Champagne has been watching developments carefully.
There is little doubt, in all of this, which confederation has the most to lose. A couple of weeks ago, UEFA thought they were quids-in. Their man was the firmest of favourites. The only question they had to grapple with was who would take over next year when their president moved to the top of the ladder and swopped Nyon for Zurich. Then, in the space of a few astonishing days, the whole picture changed and it all went belly-up. Suddenly UEFA are grappling with a whole lot more: their very own status in the future landscape of FIFA. One footballing analogy I’ve heard is that UEFA were 3-0 up and cruising, only to concede three late goals.
So what on earth do they do tactically, with the deadline for nominations almost upon us? The options are numerous, though none of them all that palatable, and you can be sure that UEFA’s brightest legal and political brains are working overtime to try and find a compromise solution that doesn’t lose them too much face.
Much of the talk around the gathering of FIFA’s top brass in Zurich this week was about which mast UEFA will ultimately pin their colours to, particularly given the split over whether or not to stay with their beleaguered leader. Gianni Infantino, UEFA’s general secretary, apparently spent much of the time sounding out opinion and discussing the best possible deal for his members.
Infantino already has enough on his plate with Angel Villar Llona, UEFA’s number two and in temporary charge with Platini suspended, now facing judgement himself having been investigated by FIFA’s ethics committee. A more awkward and embarrassing scenario is hard to contemplate and Europe might potentially have to turn to its third in line – Marios Leftkaritis of Cyprus – to run the organisation until UEFA has a presidential election of its own.
That is, of course, if Platini never returns. Infantino has been urged by at least one senior European official not to abandon Platini in his hour of need yet that seems to be the way Europe is heading. The question is, who will they jump into bed with instead?
Michael van Praag, the Dutch FA chief who pulled out of the race just before last ballot in order to allow Prince Ali a free run, is still being seriously considered, if only so that Europe can go into the contest with a show of solidarity. The feedback is that van Praag isn’t that keen, particularly if he has to withdraw again should Platini march triumphantly back into the race. On the other hand, the Dutchman has considerable gravitas and made a number of friends whilst campaigning last time.
An even stronger rumour is that Europe will line up alongside Salman. Firstly as a quid pro quo for the Asian Football Confederation president publicly backing Platini before the Frenchman’s world collapsed (Prince Ali, on the other hand, savaged Platini’s credentials). Secondly, because Infantino himself could end up as FIFA general-secretary under Salman in an Asian-Euro alliance.
Stranger things have happened. In other words, if Europe can’t bag the FIFA presidency, could it bag the number two position instead? It works both ways. Having Europe on his side could help Salman’s cause especially if it prevents UEFA’s 54 members thinking about going back to Prince Ali whom a majority of them backed last time, albeit mainly as the anti-Blatter candidate.
Speaking of Prince Ali, the Jordanian has been in Chile and Mexico recently drumming up support. He may need it if he can’t get Europe back onside. As it has turned out, he could justifiably argue he was absolutely right to question Platini’s credentials but he may have alienated too many in the UEFA camp to claw them back in.
All this, of course, is pure conjecture but these are the kinds of allegiances and alliances emanating unofficially from the corridors of power.
If I was a betting man, I would probably bet against Platini returning. Corrupt? Maybe not. Naive and outmanoeuvred? Certainly looks that way. It’s a nasty business but UEFA would probably do best to stop their mourning, heal quickly and choose another path.
Andrew Warshaw was formerly Sports Editor of The European newspaper and is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org