Forty-Five Minutes That Could Change Football's World


MAY 21, 2015

London. When Sepp Blatter is not comparing FIFA to a boat in calm or choppy waters he often uses football analogies to illustrate his point so it might amuse him to think he faces a tricky 45 minutes at this month's Congress.

That is when he will have to sit back and listen to the three men challenging his right to remain FIFA president, with each being allowed 15 minutes to score, as it were, a goal that would send him crashing to defeat.

Michael van Praag, 68, the Dutch FA president, Luis Figo, 42, of Portugal, a former World Player of the Year, and Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, 39, the outgoing vice-president of the Asian Football Confederation, are lining up against him.

Unless any of them decide to pull out beforehand, all three will address delegates from FIFA's 209 member associations when they assemble at Zurich's Hallenstadion on May 29, with Blatter then offered the floor to defend his position.

Unless the majority of the traditionally conservative and fiercely loyal Blatter supporters have a totally unexpected change of heart, he will be presented with the winner's bouquet once the votes cast in the secret ballot have been counted.

However, the 79-year-old Swiss, who has been president since 1998 and seen off opponents before, may not get quite the runaway victory he seeks.

For the first time since 1961, when Stanley Rous of England beat two rivals to win the presidency, the names of more than two men will be on the ballot paper.

While Van Praag, Figo and Prince Ali are unlikely to unseat Blatter, their presence and the fact they might muster enough votes to send the contest into a second round, would show that not everyone is happy with FIFA, or the way Blatter runs an organisation with more members than the United Nations.

Same message

The campaign for the leadership began in January last year when former FIFA deputy secretary general Jerome Champagne of France launched his bid in London.

Although his challenge subsequently collapsed a year later when he could not secure the required letters of support from five member nations, his basic message is one shared by the three who are still standing.

"FIFA needs to change, it needs to be modernized and better reflect the game in the 21st century and the time has come for Sepp Blatter to be replaced," Champagne repeated, and there is likely to be some support for that idea.

All three men have the broad backing of UEFA, the European confederation, and will gain votes from European countries while Van Praag is likely to be backed by some former Dutch colonies.

Figo, hugely admired as a player but a lightweight in this contest, could be backed by some Portuguese-speaking countries, while Prince Ali should gain the support of his own west Asian region, some north African countries and the United States, but not the whole of Asia where most countries are backing Blatter.

Backing Blatter

In fact most of FIFA's members will support Blatter.

This is largely because they feel they can trust him to help them run their associations through the Goal Program and development fund money which helps subsidize every association whether rich or poor.

Also most of the people who rise to positions of power in football are very resistant to any change.

That is best illustrated by the fact that Figo, Van Praag and Prince Ali were refused permission to speak to delegates at the Asian, African, South American and CONCACAF Congresses in the build-up to the main event.

UEFA allowed all three to address their delegates while Blatter refused the offer to speak as a "candidate," only as the FIFA president, and did so at every congress he attended.

So sure is Blatter of another victory that the president, unlike the others, has not issued a manifesto but is prepared to let his record speak for itself.

The fact his record is blemished by a series of crises during the past 17 years — culminating in widespread allegations of corruption in the way FIFA's executive committee voted Russia as hosts of the 2018 World Cup and Qatar for 2022, plus the shelving of attorney Michael Garcia's report into those allegations — is unlikely to count against him.

Instead, Blatter will speak, as he often does, of a unified FIFA, which now has reserves of $1.5bn in the bank and where respect, discipline and reform have helped steer the ship back into the safe, calm waters of a peaceful harbour.

Unless of course, he concedes an own goal with a minute to go.