On February 26, 209 members of the international body that oversees professional football, Fifa, will go to vote to elect its new president. One federation, one vote.
These are tensed times at Zurich, the Swiss city where Fifa, like many other international sport organisations, are based. Since the surprise arrest carried out by law enforcement officials at the behest of US Department of Justice in May, 2015, the inner workings of Fifa has come under increased scrutiny, and eventually forced Sepp Blatter to step down, despite winning the election held late last year. Switzerland’s Office of Attorney General to have opened an investigation into the allotment of two World Cups, the 2018 edition in Russia and 2022 in Qatar.
Many have been arrested and questioned, and those who escaped, like disgraced former Fifa vice president Jack Warner who is fighting extradition to the US, have lost their seat of power, and presumably influence, in the world body.
Clearly, never have an election for Fifa’s top post garnered so much attention. Whoever wins, have a huge task in hand to clean the institution and put the house in order. The reputation of the organisation is in shreds.
The election, however, will not give world football a ‘Neo’. To expect a new president to clean up the organisation and restore its credibility, if it ever had, is a fool’s dream. Fifa may elect its head through a secret ballot, but this no democracy, far from it.
First, the candidates do not enjoy equal rights to campaign. For instance, when Ali bin al-Hussein, the prince of Jordan, was challenging Blatter in last year’s election, he was denied the right to campaign at the Asian Football Confederation congress. Two other hopefuls, former Real Madrid star Luis Figo and Dutch administrator Michael van Praag too met the same fate. AFC’s president, Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, a member of Bahrain royal family, has for years backed Blatter at Fifa.
“It’s not an easy process but then I know that at the beginning. I wanted to speak even if just for a short time. I have been at the congress for five or six hours but OK. I can do nothing but I would like the chance. Democracy is a beautiful word,” Figo was quoted as saying then.
Salman and al-Hussein are two of the five contenders in February’s election.
There are concerns over how the candidates attract votes too. Fifa presidents have for long been accused of influencing voting by promises of funding or hosting rights.
Gianni Infantino, the Swiss administrator and a supposed confidant of suspended Uefa chief Michel Platini, has come under criticism for attempting to ‘buy votes’ through his proposal to expand the World Cup, Fifa’s gold mine, to a 40-team extravaganza. At the recently held CONCACAF congress, four of the five candidates took turns to hit out at this. Salman, in his presentation, said ‘promises of more World Cup spots during an election period are unprofessional’.
Salman is no dove either. The leading challenger to Infantino, who enjoys support from much of the European bloc, have been accused Ali bin al-Hussein of ‘blatant attempt to engineer a block vote’ by signing a pact between the AFC and the Confederation of African Football.
There are other serious charges against Salman too. He is the member of Bahrain monarchy accused of human right violation, and Salman himself is alleged to have helped in identifying dissenters in the football teams in the country. In 2011, when pro-democracy protests in Bahrain reached its peak, country’s Football Association, at the time headed by Salman, suspended over thirty football players, club staff, and referees. FIFA has formally cleared Sheikh Salman to run for the presidency this February.
According to International Freedom of Expression Exchange, or IFEX as it is better known, Hakeem al-Oraibi, a former football player for the Bahrain national team and al-Shabab FC was arrested in 2012, and charged with possession of “firebombs,” participation in an illegal gathering, and setting fire to a police station in Manama. Though he had an alibi, Hakeem was kept detained for four months, a period during which he was abused physically and threatened, reported IFEX.
Transparency International, an organisation that monitors and publicises corruption, in a report last year titled ‘Give back the game’, said Fifa needs radical reforms. Among its suggestions was the need to implement an independent reform commission to review and develop the very laws that govern the world of football. It also called for Fifa candidates to publish a complete declaration of interests, declare how much they are spending and the source of it for campaigning and equal opportunity to address associations. None of it has been implemented.
Beside these, there needs to be a change in voting rights. If Fifa is a body that governs all aspect of the professional life of a footballer, doesn’t he/she have the right to have a say? If not all the registered footballers, which would be logistical non-starter, the captains of all the member associations should be given voting rights; they are shareholders too.
The takeaway from this election, however, is the scrutiny, and hence, the need to continue it, regardless of who wins it, is necessary.