Andrew Warshaw: FIFA phoney war is over, battle lines drawn

So now we know who’s in and who’s out. A list that at one stage comprised only two candidates suddenly burgeoned to eight – or rather seven after the David Nakhid debacle – in the final hours before the deadline last Monday with the anticipated rush of last-minute applications.

Now is when the backroom deals and horsetrading start to unravel. In fact they already have given the comments of Kuwaiti kingmaker Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah about a prospective deal between the candidate who has his hefty support, Asian football supremo Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, and UEfa’s Gianni Infantino. A Salman-Infantino one-two in the FIFA heirarchy, which I floated a few days ago, suddenly seems to have legs.

One thing’s for sure. The field will be narrowed by the time the ballot takes place next February to replace Sepp Blatter. For a start those in the running have to go through a rigorous integrity check, the results of which should be known within about a week.

It’s hard at such an early stage to pick a favourite now that Michel Platini’s bid to succeed his mentor-turned-foe appears to be all but doomed over that infamous SFr2 million payment he received in 2011. After receiving some sharp legal advice, the UEFA president took the clever precaution of putting in his candidacy just before being suspended in the event he somehow clears his name in time. More of that shortly.

In the meantime, with most of Asia likely to line up behind him, Sheikh Salman must fancy his chances after deciding to go for the job himself now that Platini, whom he previously backed, risks seeing his hopes go up in smoke.

Salman’s candidacy provides a mouth-watering head-to-head battle royal with Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, the young Jordanian reformer who ended up being Blatter’s only opponent in May and lost by 133 votes to 73. They are two very different personalities between whom there is no love lost. Prince Ali will feel he can split the Asian vote, just as he believes he did last time. Like many candidates he was in Cairo this week lobbying for support among senior African delegates. He has already been to Mexico, a major player now that Concacaf has been thrust into the spotlight as arguably the key battle ground given it has 41 members and no candidate of its own.

But without Europe on his side this time, it is hard to foresee anything other than defeat for Prince Ali, making him the only contender in Fifa presidential history to lose twice. Given how many European feathers he has ruffled with his criticism of Platini, it is difficult to see him emerge victorious. UEFA simply couldn’t stomach getting back into bed with him. As a result they went for their own back-up candidate in case Platini doesn’t make it.

Two weeks ago, Infantino, UEFA’s hard-working, understated general secretary and second in command, assured anyone who would listen that there was no plan B but has been forced to eat his words. With the pressure growing not to get left in the political slipstream, UEFA simply couldn’t stand by and just hope for the best. Hence why Infantino offered to step in, the farthest thing from his mind until Platini became embroiled in the ongoing FIFA corruption crisis.

Platini insists he has done nothing wrong but will only have his candidacy recognised if and when his ban ends. UEFA have gone for the next best option and someone who would be prepared to drop out should their leader miraculously be cleared.

Some commentators have suggested that Platini has been hard done by, that he was at worst naive, that the decision to suspend him was unjust, and that it was deliberately misleading to pin the timing of when he received the infamous payment to Blatter’s election victory a few weeks later.

These same commentators argue Platini was owed the money and that oral contracts (which is what Platini and Blatter had) are perfectly legal in Switzerland. But this misses a vital point. It was precisely because there WAS a valid contract, and allegedly a secret one at that, that the payment should have been declared and placed in FIFA’s accounts. Not in 2011 but at the time it was agreed. In other words, a decade earlier.

The case against Platini is that this didn’t happen, a clear suggestion of falsification. Whilst I agree one might question the behaviour of FIFA’s finance director, Markus Kattner (currently acting secretary-general), it’s surely not about whether Platini was or wasn’t owed the money but more about the fact that only two gentlemen (himself and Blatter) appeared to know about it — until 2011 that is.

If this argument sticks, it is hard to see Platini winning any appeal. My sources suggest he may ultimately find himself outside looking in for a lot longer than 90 days. On paper, Platini was the ideal candidate: someone who had played the game at the highest level, had widespread organisational and administrative experience and knew all the various stakeholders inside out. UEFA must be kicking themselves in frustration. But if Infantino can somehow engineer a deal that saves face, Platini may not be as great a loss as he himself would have us believe.

Andrew Warshaw is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball and was formerly Sports Editor of the European. Contact him at andrew warshaw