Ali wants a new revolution but the chances are it will be just like yesterday, reckons Andrew Warshaw
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Chances are, Sepp Blatter will not be familiar with the lyric. Unless, that is, he is an avid follower of rock music. Yet barring the mother of all upsets, The Who’s immortal line seems bound to apply to the current FIFA president when he bids for a fifth term of office on Friday.
Until a week ago, Blatter was facing three opponents for the most powerful job in world football, only for the field to narrow to just one adversary in the space of a remarkable 24 hours.
After four months of lobbying, both Michael van Praag – originally nominated by the Scottish FA and by far the most vocal critic of FIFA – and Luis Figo pulled out in a last-ditch tactical move designed to dethrone the veteran Swiss after 17 often fractious and corruption-tarnished years at the helm.
Figo was always the rank outsider but his anticipated withdrawal was accompanied by a withering attack on the election process. The reality, however, is that getting rid of the canny and seemingly impregnable 79-year-old was always going to be a tough task.
Now it is the task of one sole opponent.
Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan, whose family have a long and distinguished history in sports administration, certainly has youth on his side at 39. But like it or not, Blatter’s popularity, outside of Europe, remains ominously strong. Prince Ali, shamefully some might say, cannot even count on majority support of his own 46-nation continent, who pledged their loyal backing for Blatter before their own royal member entered the fray, and are sticking by their original allegiance.
If that sounds unfair to the point of malicious, it needs to be placed in the context of Asian football politics, which is rife with machieviellian complexities. Sadly, there is no love lost between Prince Ali and the leadership of his confederation who are suspicious of his progressive motives even though he was the man who almost single-handedly persuaded the game’s rule-making body, IFAB, to allow Islamic women footballers to wear the hijab, or headscarf, when they play.
To be fair, Prince Ali knew as soon as he put his name forward to take on Blatter back in January that it was win or bust. Having already lost his Asian FIFA vice-presidency, courtesy of a sinister change of statutes, he decided – recklessly according to his critics – to go the whole hog. Lose to Blatter as well and he will walk away from FIFA after just four years on its executive committee with little desire to be a part of the existing regime.
Which is exactly what, in all likelihood, will happen. President of the Jordanian football federation, Prince Ali has always been by far the most likely of the three challengers to gather the most votes from around the world.
Whether he can gather enough is another issue.
The challenge for the quiet reformist – whose determination has much to be admired – is not only to beat Blatter but, in a way more importantly, to inflict sufficient embarrassment to prevent the wily old Swiss romping home in the first round. If he can prove a point by stopping Blatter getting a two-thirds majority and take the ballot to a second round and a straight knockout, it will certainly strike a blow for those who believe FIFA has become a dysfunctional, untrustworthy organisation under Blatter’s tenure.
But it’s a big if. Prince Ali, who runs the not-for-profit Asian Football Development Project, believes he is far more in touch with grass-roots football than Blatter. He believes, too, that with Praag’s and Figo’s supporters behind him (though one doubts the latter had many) and UEFA firmly on his side, he can split the vote in enough of the other confederations to at least give Blatter a bloody nose.
“We have to be a lot more open and transparent in how we do things,” says Prince Ali, who has witnessed at first hand the spate of corruption allegations, bans and investigations that have plagued world football’s governing body, most notably over the 2018-2022 World Cup bidding process. “There’s nothing to hide – or there shouldn’t be. If the football family follows their desires, and if things are done in a correct way with no interference, we have a great chance of making that change.”
His problem is that, in much of the world, Blatter is widely supported, especially by smaller nations who are less interested in allegations of corruption and more interested in receiving the financial resources to stay afloat.
As a direct result, too little too late perhaps, Prince Ali has deliberately tweaked his manifesto to include increasing the number of World Cup finalists from 32 to 36 in time for the 2018 tournament in Russia. He has also promised every association at least $1 million a year.
Van Praag only agreed to back Prince Ali on condition that a number of his own proposals be taken up in the Jordanian’s revised vision for change. These apparently included better human rights for workers employed on Qatar’s World Cup projects and limiting the FIFA president to two terms only.
Blatter, who declined to take part in a public political-style debate with his opponents, is such an overwhelming favourite that he was the only contender not to have published a manifesto. “My manifesto is the work I have done in the last years in FIFA,” he said in March.
It is exactly that kind of perceived arrogance that so infuriates his opponents, not least Figo, but to get an idea of why Blatter remains so popular, listen to Jim Boyce, Britain’s outgoing FIFA vice-president, shortly to be succeeded by David Gill.
“Whether you like him or not, the man has a certain amount of charisma,” explained Boyce. “He does like power, you can see that when he walks into a room. But I’ve been at a lot of functions where he always seems to have the knack of going over to speak to people. From that point of view, he’s personable and people appreciate the time he seems to have for them.”
Prince Ali is equally personable and two generations younger. He hopes he can sway any wavering federations his way in the final hours leading up to Friday’s ballot in Zurich. “I think the support of Michael van Praag is obviously very important,” said Ali. “We are all standing on a platform for reform. I think now the most important thing is that we are joined as a team. Together we are much stronger than one person alone.”
Not with Blatter on the other side of the ring.
THE PRESIDENT V THE PRINCE
Sepp Blatter Switzerland
• Age: 79
• Became FIFA secretary general in 1981 and, after 17 years serving under Joao Havelange, replaced the Brazilian as president in 1998.
• Faced potential crisis when FIFA’s then secretary general Michel Zen-Ruffinen claimed Blatter’s 1998 election victory, when he beat Lennart Johansson, was based on bribery and corruption and that FIFA was being financially mismanaged at the highest levels.
• In 2022 beat Issa Hayatou of Cameroon, president of the Asian confederation, before being returned unopposed in 2007.
• Won a fourth term in 2011, again unopposed, when challenger Mohamed Bin Hammam of Qatar was barred from FIFA on bribery charges.
• Blatter has survived a series of scandals during his term in office including widespread accusations that Qatar bought the right to stage the 2022 World Cup.
• In 2011 Blatter said he would retire in 2015, but he is instead now seeking a fifth term
Prince Ali bin al-Hussein Jordan
• Age: 39
• Third son of the late King Hussein of Jordan. His mother Queen Alia died in a helicopter crash in February 1977 when he was 14 months old.
• Became president of the Jordan Football Association in 1999 and a year later, he founded the West Asian Football Federation.
• He successfully campaigned to lift the ban on female Islamic players wearing headscarves in competitions.
• In 2011, he was elected FIFA vice-president for Asia, becoming the youngest member of the executive board at the age of 35. He was also elected vice-president of the Asian Football Confederation.
• Runs the Asian Football Development Project, a not-for-profit grassroots programme across the continent.
• In his election manifesto he wants to “turn the pyramid upside down”, giving more power to “the national associations, players, coaches, officials, fans and sponsors” and go back to a “formal continental rotation system” for the World Cup.