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Time for FIFA to turn to the East

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Sepp Blatter

There are seven candidates for the presidency of FIFA. Three of them are from Europe though they will become two when the Michel Platini/Gianni Infantino situation is resolved. Even if Platini is able to contest the presidency, which reasoned thought would consider impossible due to the stigma of corruption, the current UEFA president would seem to have burnt his bridges.

Most of football thinks it is time to change the old guard and because of the Eurocentricity of FIFA leadership for more than a century that old guard IS Europe.

That would leave Infantino and Jerome Champagne to represent the establishment against the candidates from Africa and Asia. Both will be heavily handicapped by the suspicion and distrust of FIFA`s Euro elements by football confederations across the globe.

Even if the presidential contest is viewed purely from the perspective of votes available the simple equation of 53 UEFA votes does not even come close if you measure it against the 156 votes of the other confederations. Because of the corrupt practices that have emerged over the past couple of years it is not unrealistic to look at the situation purely in terms of those figures, 53 v 156.

Options and alternatives are limited for the world governing body. It IS time for that new broom every media headline and blog has been trumpeting about. Who wields the broom will be decided in February but, realistically it will be a straight contest between Asian and Africa. Logically it must be seen as an intra-Asia two-horse race between Prince Ali bin al-Hussein and Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al Khalifa. 

The two African candidates have limited experience at the highest levels of international football administration, when compared to the two from Asia. Tokyo Sexwale has only been in the game for six years and Musa Biliti’s only football leadership experience is as head of the Liberian FA and he has been in football for just five years. He will also be campaigning under the shadow of a six month ban from all football activity imposed on him by the CAF, in 2013.

The two candidates representing Asia at FIFA do so from a lot closer than many of the regions within that sector which is not only widest spread, geographically, but also the most populous.

Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, president of the Jordan FA, is, at 39, the youngest candidate. While Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al Khalifa, ten years his senior, is president of the Asian Football Confederation and, like Prince Ali, is a FIFA vice president.

It would not be possible to have two more diametrically opposed candidates seeking to become the first FIFA president from Asia.

The Sheikh graduated from the University of Bahrain while Prince Ali`s formal education would be regarded as more diverse. The Prince, having completed his primary education in Amman continued his studies in England and the USA. It was while studying in America that Ali excelled in wrestling which will no doubt stand him in good stead if he occupies the top seat at FIFA. He went on to graduate from Sandhurst before serving in the Jordanian Special Services as a pathfinder, a dangerous role that required being first in to danger zones to secure a bridgehead, again something he will find useful in Zurich.

Prince Ali had a brief foray into the world of presidential elections at FIFA when he stood against Sepp Blatter in May 2015. He actually polled 73 votes against Blatter`s 133 before withdrawing. On paper if he were to recover those same supporters in February he would only need an additional 66 votes to become president and in the fickle world of football’s governing body, the same organisation that saw Herr Blatter ‘lord it’ large for 17 years, anything is possible. Ali was always going to contest for the presidency but Sheikh Salman came late to the party declaring his candidacy just 24 hours before the deadline. And that was, allegedly, after discussions with FIFA interim president and AFC leader Issa Hayatou.    

Cynics might also suggest that the Sheikh’s late entry as a candidate was to minimise the furore his quest for the FIFA top job would create with the critics who have cited his alleged involvement in human rights abuse in Bahrain, concerning pro-democracy demonstrations in 2011. Many of those protesters, including some footballers, were later imprisoned and tortured. Salman has denied any involvement in human rights abuse but as so many leading football figures have discovered, mud sticks.

Sheikh Salman also has further hindrances that could have a negative impact on his quest for the FIFA presidency. As president of the AFC he has ongoing problems within his own organisation before he even contemplates taking on the task of sorting Zurich out.

There is the current row in Indonesia where the Football Association, sponsored by Qatar National Bank, is in a dispute over which football clubs can participate. Then there is the furore over the bitterly contested, some allege fixed, election campaign for presidency of the Punjab region. On top of that is one of the core elements of Salman’s election manifesto, a declared intent to end the shady world of match fixing and betting scandals, a blight that threatens to wipe out the game in Asia.

If those were not enough to occupy Sheikh Salman he also did little to endear himself to the world of women’s football when he took an almighty backward step in scrapping the AFC’s designated women’s football vice presidency. While his Asian rival for the FIFA job did the exact opposite for the rapidly expanding women`s game by being instrumental in getting the FIFA ban on the hijab lifted in what is still regarded as a massive victory against centuries old cultural barriers.

In a region where democracy is to some a new concept Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al Khalifa, as president of the AFC, continues to rule his confederation in a manner not dissimilar to the way his forbears have ruled for millennia.   

At this year’s AFC congress, for example, the Sheikh denied three potential candidates for the FIFA presidency the chance to declare their vision for the world game. An opportunity not denied to the AFC president.

Both Prince Ali and Sheikh Salman have experience in football administration. In that respect the Sheikh has been in the game for 20 years though only recently at the top level, since 2013 when he became president of the AFC. Prince Ali, on the other hand, has 16 years of experience in the game, most of it within the particularly unpredictable and potentially unstable region that is Asia. He also founded the West Asian Football Federation and under his presidency the membership increased to 13 counties. The Prince is also a FIFA executive and former vice president responsible for Asia and has served on both the FIFA Executive Committee and the AFC Executive Committee.

In a list of seven candidates Prince Ali seems to be the only one without any skeletons and while he may not be considered by some a strong candidate, that assertion is relative  and he is possibly the best candidate of the seven. Because of his age and his education Prince Ali spans the Arab world and the West. The old football world and the new and because of his public declaration that there are good people within FIFA and ( as everyone now knows ) that the crisis at FIFA is one of leadership he is surely the right man for the job.

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