Dirty tricks accusations have become something of a tradition during FIFA presidential elections. So it was hardly a surprise to see two of the top candidates trading blows with each other via the media ahead of the poll, which takes place on February 26.
The difference this time round is that these two candidates are both members of Arab royal families. Never before has the region had so much prominence when it comes to the world’s favourite sport.
In one corner, you have Jordan’s Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, the man who lost out to disgraced former FIFA president Sepp Blatter in the last election. Prince Ali’s campaign has been based on reform, a topic that everyone outside the FIFA bubble seems desperate to achieve. His recently announced manifesto, for example, includes a desire to bring in tougher rules for World Cup bidding rights, the issue that has more than any other landed FIFA in hot water.
In the other corner, you have Bahrain’s Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa, the powerful head of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). As things stand, Sheikh Salman’s support from Asia, Africa and South America make him the odds favourite to win the post. The Bahraini has won a reputation as a man who can broker deals, but seems to have spent more time shoring up his support base, rather than saying what he will actually do if he gets elected.
In recent days, Sheikh Salman has secured the backing of the Confederation of African Football (CAF). That move, however, resulted in a complaint from Prince Ali, who described the deal between CAF and AFC as a “blatant attempt to engineer a block vote”. The rivalry between the two took a more bizarre turn last week when one of Sheikh Salman’s supporters attempted to claim that Prince Ali had hired an ex-Israeli footballer to work for him. The man in question turned out to be a public relations executive from Wales.
Prince Ali, in return, has raised questions about Sheikh Salman’s role during protests in his home country in 2011, accusations that the latter has strongly denied.
In reality, the spat between the two probably doesn’t matter. Instead, if anyone is likely to beat Sheikh Salman, it is Gianni Infantino. The Italian is the default representative of European football’s governing body UEFA after its former boss, Michel Platini was banned from football for eight years, alongside Blatter. He has the support of several influential European bodies, including the English and German Football Associations.
Rank outsiders Tokyo Sexwale, a South African businessman, and Jérôme Champagne – another member of FIFA’s old guard who failed to get the minimum five nominations required to be eligible for the last election – have run fairly listless campaigns.
The whole thing has been pretty depressing. Aside from Prince Ali, most candidates have focused on building up votes, rather than explaining exactly what policies they will actually put in place to implement change. Some have spoken about rebuilding trust with sponsors – which translates as saying their priority is to get the cash rolling in once more. But if the organisation isn’t looking at transparency and accountability, the whole exercise is a waste of time.
If, as expected, Sheikh Salman wins on February 26, will he really deliver the change FIFA so desperately needs? The football world can only hope so.
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