Owen Evans spoke to the FIFA presidential race’s inner circle – ex-members, lobbyists and national association chairmen – to see whether anyone can actually oust Sepp Blatter from his FIFA throne.
“The President cannot do your interview, he is on his way to the Bahamas.”
That was the line given to given to SportBusiness International by FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s Executive Office, just six weeks out from a vote that, in theory, puts his job in the balance.
While there was a CONCACAF (the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football) Congress to attend, you could be forgiven for imagining the location was chosen intentionally, such is the 79-year-old’s lack of panic about the fact he could theoretically be out of work by the time the next edition of our magazine reaches you.
The Swiss administrator is a heavy favourite to retain his presidential seat this month when FIFA’s membership of 209 national associations vote in Zurich. In fact, he is such a heavy favourite that at the time
of writing he has not officially spoken at any event in an election capacity, unlike rival candidates Michael van Praag, Luis Figo and Prince Ali, who have taken every major opportunity possible.
Ever the tactician, Blatter decided not to square off against his presidential rivals at a UEFA Congress in Vienna this March, despite an invite to do so. “My manifesto is the work I have done in the last years in FIFA,” he said. “I am 40 years in FIFA and I am 17 years as president, this is my manifesto.”
Gianni Infantino, UEFA general secretary, said that the governing body for football across the continent and its president Michel Platini “believe there should be a change at FIFA and a democratic and open debate about the presidency.”
“Mr. Blatter decided to only speak as [FIFA] president and not as one of the candidates. The associations can decide for themselves as to whether Mr. Blatter has shown them a lack of respect,” he added.
As it stands, Blatter holds all the cards and he is not prepared to rush into any move that could backfire. As well as the Vienna Congress, a TV debate was mooted where Blatter would face against his three challengers over how to create a better FIFA, and not one continuously tainted by rumours of corruption.
While his three compatriots petition all corners of the football family for a vote, Blatter can continue his day job of visiting the national associations – his voters – in the official capacity as president, while we are expected to trust he is not using his position to campaign unofficially, away from the gaze of the international media.
“It’s an open and shut Blatter victory,” a Swiss-based sports marketer who has worked with Blatter since his days as FIFA’s general secretary, told SportBusiness International at last month’s SportAccord International Convention in Sochi.
“Just look at the support that’s coming for him out of Africa. That’s a sizeable chunk of support he has from CAF (Confederation of African Football) – 50-plus votes – and pretty much all he needs to get the majority.
“They [the FIFA members] support him still. Why shouldn’t they? Blatter’s brought nearly all of them through. You have to remember that he doesn’t suffer anywhere near the same amount of negative press in most of the world as he does in the UK and a few other places.
The rest of the candidates in the race are basically window dressing
“He’s running, and unless an absolute miracle happens he will be re-elected, and it will be a victory he claims in the first round of the voting. The rest of the candidates involved in the race are basically window dressing.
“I’m actually of the opinion that Jérôme Champagne was supposed to be the original window dressing for this vote, but then he backed away when some true contenders came forward. Having said that, I don’t think any of those true candidates have any chance of picking up any votes other than the odd one here or there.”
Glimmer of Hope
Despite the overwhelming sense that it will be business as usual for Blatter after May 29, some within the FIFA circle have noticed chinks in the normally bullet-proof armour of the president during his recent travels.
“[CAF president] Issa Hayatou said that Blatter would get all 54 votes, but they didn’t sign a resolution along those lines because they realised it wouldn’t be unanimous,” says a senior communications advisor for football federations.
— SportBusiness (@SportBusiness) April 16, 2015
“If you take all of that, along with all the intelligence from the others, you can’t say Africa definitely is a block vote for Blatter.
“Take a look around the confederations and there are clues everywhere. Everyone knows there will be some Asian national associations who will vote for Prince Ali. CONMEBOL (the South American Football Confederation) stated in Paraguay in February that its associations could not form a collective resolution to support Blatter.
“At CONCACAF, meanwhile, [president] Jeffrey Webb has already said they will not take a formal position. UEFA is obviously wide open as well considering the support that Figo, van Praag and Prince Ali have – there will be supporters for each of the candidates, including Blatter.
“There is a lot still to play for. Blatter remains the favourite, but it’s a secret ballot, and people forget that the confederation presidents can say whatever the hell they like, but at the end of the day it is the members who vote.”
Out of Africa?
A senior bid advisor who has acted as a consultant to national football associations in Africa since the 1990s believes you can read into the fact that Blatter didn’t get the standing ovation he has always received from CAF at its annual Congress in Cairo last month.
“It seems as though Africa is not as united behind him as they have been in the past,” he told SportBusiness International. “The fact that Hayatou’s speech said ‘we’re all for you Mr. President’ when the reality is that the support for him within CAF is divided tells you that it doesn’t stand up.
“Having said that, you can probably say that the majority of Africa is with Blatter, but we’ll have to wait and see.”
Luis Figo disputes Africa’s support for Sepp Blatter in Fifa presidential race http://t.co/yAgDMu4m2z
— Ghanasoccernet.com (@Ghanasoccernet) April 8, 2015
One member of Blatter’s former staff at FIFA, who only spoke to us on the condition he remained anonymous, said that FIFA faces a problem in that while allegations of corruption and bribery continue to taint the organisation, Blatter has “made money for his members while the rest of the world has crumbled during recession”.
“There was another attack on Blatter recently from the Sunday Times in the UK,” he says. “However, in most of the countries I travel to, you just don’t get that level of scrutiny. The sport is massive, and FIFA is massive – why should you change a winning ticket if you were a FIFA national association?”
You can draw your own conclusions from the fact so many of the people who have an inside knowledge of Sepp Blatter’s world refuse to give up their identity for fear that they will be permanently excluded from FIFA’s inner circle.
One thing seems for certain, though. President Blatter’s re-election campaign could be as emphatic as the split in public perception of him, depending on which part of the world you are looking from.
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