21 May 2015

This is anything but an election’ – Figo slams Fifa as he withdraws candidacy

“This electoral process is anything but an election.. This [election] process is a plebiscite for the delivery of absolute power to one man.”

Words one might associate with a banana republic.

But no, this is the land of Fifa. In the last few minutes former World Footballer of the Year Luis Figo issued an extraordinary statement as he pulled out of the race to unseat Sepp Blatter as the head of football’s governing body.

Former soccer player Figo of Portugal attends the UEFA congress in Vienna

Head of the Dutch FA and football moderniser Michael van Praag threw in the towel earlier today.

So now there are but two in the race.

Next Friday only Jordan’s Prince Ali will remain standing.

Sepp Blatter’s opponents know they are better off pooling what little support they have in their bids to unseat the controversial Fifa president.

Although perhaps one should say their “doomed” bids, because anyone who is anyone in world football will tell you the 79-year-old Swiss is almost certain to win a fifth term at the helm of football’s scandal wracked global governing body.

There are 209 national football associations who will decide in a secret ballot next Friday whether Blatter will stay or go.

If any candidate takes two thirds in the first round they will automatically be crowned king.

Those in the know suggest Blatter will walk away with around 150 – and thus avoid a second poll.  And if the election does last that long – a simple majority will then decide the winner.

But the smart money is on a swift and decisive win for Blatter.  In fact, opponents say they’ll consider it a huge victory if Blatter is forced into the humiliation of a run-off.

So what do Blatter’s rivals stand for?

Arguably it doesn’t matter.  Because for the last 18 years Blatter has presided over an extraordinary lining of Fifa’s coffers, securing billions in sponsorship and television broadcast deals that have filtered their way – by fair means or, according to his critics, foul – to football administrators around the world.

Global football runs on relationships schmoozed out in back rooms and bazaars and Blatter is the undisputed master.

And for the past year he has been glad-handing his way around football’s regional confederations to remind voters why he is the safe pair of hands they know and should therefore trust.

Most – Africa, The Northern and Southern Americas, and Asia, allowed only Blatter to formally address their members at their annual congress this Spring. Ostensibly to talk global football matters – he’s the president of Fifa after all.  But no-one was under any illusions – this was electioneering 101.

Blatter’s message has been simple – give him another term and Fifa’s funds will keep flowing.

It’s not that the other candidates promised not to disburse Fifa’s extraordinary largesse.

But it’s their loud pledges of a clean break from Fifa’s shameful history of non existent transparency and accountability that set them apart.

For a while Jordan’s Prince Ali was thought to have garnered the most support.  But he has a fight even in his own back yard of Asia.  The Asian Football confederation Sheikh Salman of Bahrain has promised most of the votes to his old friend Sepp Blatter.

It’s worth remembering that when the African Confederation President Issa Hayatou ran against Blatter for the Fifa presidency in 2002, Blatter got more votes in Africa than Hayatou did. Blatter knows how to win, even deep in enemy territory.

And then there’s the matter of reform.

Prince Ali is seen as a good man but he’s somewhat shy and reserved.  Does he have the mettle to make the changes he’s promising?

And what about Qatar?  Qatar might listen to a Jordanian telling them to get their act together over worker’s rights ahead of the 2022 world cup.  But on the other hand – the exploitative khafala system exists in Jordan.  How much credibility would he really have on that?

It comes down to the politicking.

Former candidate Luis Figo may well have earned respect for his playing, but administration is a very different matter.  He ran a lacklustre campaign based mainly around his fame.

Figo promised more money to federations, with a focus on grass roots development, while also expanding the top end of the game – the world cup – possibly up to 48 teams.

None of which will now count for a jot with the people that matter – the 209 mainly men who will almost certainly next week to keep Sepp Blatter on at the helm of what was once known as the beautiful game.

Five of football’s six confederations have pledged their support for him.

Next Friday Blatter’s remaining challenger – Prince Ali – will have a final 15 minute opportunity to persuade the heads of each and every national football association why it should be him steering Fifa for the next four years.

So sure of success is Blatter that he hasn’t even bothered to produce a manifesto.

His record, he says, speaks for itself.  With $1.5bn in Fifa’s ever deeper coffers – make of that what you will…

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