Bye Bye, Blatter

Sarena Malsin, Sports Editor

This Friday, it will finally be time for FIFA to elect a new president to replace Sepp Blatter at the special FIFA congress in Zurich. Finally. FIFA, arguably the world’s most powerful international sports organization, has developed a reputation for corruption and dysfunctionality with incredibly slow and ineffective solutions.

Blatter was the embodiment — and, in many cases, the origin — of FIFA’s corrupt legacy. He began the mess that was his reign in 1998. Three years later, he engaged in what FIFA representatives innocently called “clumsy” conduct in 2001 that bankrupted FIFA’s marketing partner, the company International Sport and Leisure, likely because of kickbacks to FIFA executives that amounted to tens of millions of dollars. Blatter later kept the ball rolling with the infamously bad decision to initiate the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups at the same time in 2010, which left lanes wide open for vote-trading and bribery, practices which FIFA later assured the public had “not affected the integrity of the vote.”

He has also made some mind-blowingly idiotic statements, such as that there is no racism in soccer — and if there was, players should just get over it — and that homosexual fans concerned about attending the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, where homosexuality is a crime, should just “refrain from any sexual activities” while they’re there. No problem.

So now that we’ve established that Blatter’s pretty much the worst, let’s look at who’s on tap to replace him after his disgraced, long-awaited resignation and breathe a collective sigh of relief that FIFA may be out of the corrupted woods and growing out of its angsty, destructive teen years.

Wait. You have to be kidding. There have got to be better options than these.

As things stand right now, there are two front-runners in the bid for FIFA presidency. One seems to be an aggressive call of the bluff of fans who say any change from Blatter would be a welcome one. The other seems assured to carry on everything wrong with Blatter’s terms given his background, a reputation that may actually be his saving grace and an impetus for change.

First, there’s Bahraini royal Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa. The uncontested favorite — especially after Union of European Football Associations President Michel Platini was suspended for an ethical violation — saw support from South America, Asia, Europe and other regions as president of the Asian Football Confederation. While there was still some pushback from UEFA members who wanted a European candidate to remain at the head of FIFA and perpetuate the Eurocentric insiders’ club where diversity is made up and the rules don’t matter, he remained the hopeful favorite for those who understood the need for a change in direction.

Sheikh Salman has already demonstrated the potential benefits of a more nuanced understanding of non-European regions, having led the campaign to move the 2022 World Cup in Qatar from summer to winter to accommodate the extreme weather conditions — something that European officials and coaches weren’t prepared to accept as a change from normal league and training schedules.

However, inclusion of other cultures may be a little overshadowed by the fact that Sheikh Salman’s success in the race so far has made human rights organizations nervous. Call me crazy, but I think beef with anyone in support of human rights is a major red flag for a FIFA president. Sheikh Salman has a history that makes the prospect of him gaining more international power a scary one. As part of the ruling family in Bahrain, the AFC president was involved in the brutal and violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests in the country in 2011. The response, which turned to lethal gunfire against protesters in most areas, also involved the jailing and denunciation of members of Bahrain’s national soccer team for participating in the demonstrations.

Then there’s Gianni Infantino. He is definitely a European candidate and seems likely to continue the Eurocentrism of FIFA in every respect. When I first heard of his late-starting campaign, which began to fill in the gap left by Platini, I was extremely skeptical that he would be following in the corrupt Blatter collaborator’s footsteps in theory as well as in practice. The former player from Brig, Switzerland, a speaker of several European languages — English, German, Italian and Spanish — overcame his fear of flying to travel around the globe in what still seemed to be an exercise in paying lip service to non-European countries. The more widely circulated tenet of his plans for revitalizing FIFA is that he plans to expand the number of member countries from 32 to 40, which seems like a typical Blatter-esque Band-Aid fix for the bullet wound problem of diversity.

Seemingly well under the thumb and influence of Blatter’s corrupt European circle, Infantino doesn’t quite seem to grasp the extent to which FIFA’s diversity and corruption problems need work. He is an organized, goal-oriented man who likes completing neatly laid out tasks. He doesn’t seem enough of a risk-taker to depart from his European background and Platini’s shadow to generate significant change.

That being said, Infantino’s scrutiny may be his best friend in his campaign, and the factor that could distinguish him from Blatter. As an effective nobody compared to Blatter’s four-term reelected, terrifying tenure, Infantino actually has to take these criticisms to heart instead of relying on an inner circle of automatic yes-votes. And Infantino has been listening. Maybe in his dry, organized way of looking at things, he put universal appeal at the top of his task list, or maybe he really is a breath of fresh air coming from the UEFA ‘royal family.’ Infantino’s support base isn’t coming from his UEFA crew, it’s coming from the areas to which his organized 10-point plan is aimed to appeal: the Caribbean and Africa. A European candidate aiming for support from these regions at all is a powerful testament to Infantino’s capabilities as a more universal FIFA representative, even if he only aims to “complete the task” of fulfilling his presidency, which he has asserted is all he is trying to do.

The bottom line is, FIFA hates change, but the organization needs it badly. Even its process for choosing a president shows it needs to grow up as an organization. The system of long, disorganized lines and informal ballot tables has reminded numerous reporters of high school class president elections. Granted, there isn’t a candidate right now that will definitely give FIFA exactly what it needs, but Infantino has the potential to play a significant role in setting an example of change and maturity for the rest of the organization — one its members may actually listen to.