GENEVA — For once, a major FIFA election is untainted by claims of vote-buying.
There’s no need this time.
Sepp Blatter’s widely expected re-election on May 29 as president of soccer’s world governing body for a fifth term has seldom seemed a real contest. His hold on the top job is so secure that Blatter published no manifesto, declined to debate opponents and rarely engaged with media worldwide.
“I am not campaigning,” Blatter said in March at a FIFA news conference he was obliged to attend. “I am now 40 years in FIFA, and I am 17 years as president of FIFA. This is my manifesto.”
Three rival candidates entered the race in January: Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan, Luis Figo of Portugal and Michael van Praag of the Netherlands. Van Praag, however, dropped out of the race on Thursday and switched his support to FIFA vice-president Prince Ali.
By withdrawing, Van Praag showed how the task to sway Blatter’s rock-solid support looked impossible even before belatedly starting to seek votes.
“If you really wanted to do this properly you should have started (campaigning) two years ago,” Van Praag, the Dutch soccer federation president, said in Vienna in March.
The outcome has looked clear since February 2014 when Blatter dropped his biggest hint that he would run again. He teased he “would not say no” if enough of FIFA’s 209 member federations asked him.
Despite the scandals and allegations often swirling around FIFA, voters worldwide show little or no desire for change at the top.
Familiarity with Blatter has bred content. He was FIFA’s top administrator and, therefore, point man to members for 17 years before his controversial first election in 1998.
On Blatter’s presidential watch, FIFA has risen from financial crisis in 2001 to sit on a growing $1.5 billion reserve fund.
FIFA earned almost $5 billion directly from the 2014 World Cup and rewarded all 209 members equally well.
The smallest island federation in the Caribbean or South Pacific got the same bonus payments totalling $1.05 million from FIFA’s tournament profits as World Cup champion Germany.
Each member has equal voting power at the congress when changing FIFA rules or picking a president — as each federation helps do every four years in Zurich. FIFA pays for a three-person delegation from each of the 209 to attend the election in its home city, one of the world’s most expensive.
It adds up to Blatter being able to count on most voters in five of FIFA’s six continental confederations during his reign. Even UEFA has pockets of support for him, especially within the Russian sphere of influence.
Since the candidate deadline passed, four confederations which held their annual assemblies blocked Blatter’s opponents from making formal speeches to potential voters. The three rivals sat and watched in Asuncion, Paraguay; Cairo, Egypt; Nassau, Bahamas; and Manama, Bahrain as FIFA’s game of democracy played out.
Meanwhile, FIFA protocol allowed Blatter to address all those meetings, without explicitly referring to the election. He also met voters when attending finals at the Asian Cup and African Cup of Nations.
This strategy of official non-engagement has proved effective for Blatter, limiting possible mistakes and offering no stage for his opponents to make gains.
The exception was UEFA’s annual meeting in Vienna.
Blatter had a front row seat to hear executive committee colleague Prince Ali describe FIFA as “authoritarian,” and Van Praag talk of disarray, nepotism and corruption.
Today, Blatter’s rivals remain relatively unknown to voters. It was very different four years ago.
Then, the rival candidate was a confederation president, Asian soccer’s then-leader Mohamed bin Hammam of Qatar.
Bin Hammam challenged his former ally after more than a decade overseeing FIFA project grants totalling tens of millions of dollars to potential voters, and months after helping Qatar win the 2022 World Cup hosting rights.
Carrying that momentum, Bin Hammam seemed a genuine threat until being taken down in a bribery scandal. Caribbean voters were each offered $40,000 in cash three weeks before election day.
In 1998, when Bin Hammam was a key campaigner for Blatter’s first election, it was said that $50,000 offers to some African voters in a Paris hotel decisively swayed the result. Bin Hammam was also in Blatter’s inner circle for the 2002 election.
Blatter has spent half his life devoted to FIFA and its family of officials, making him difficult to unseat. UEFA President Michel Platini, an all-time great player for France and one-time FIFA protege of Blatter, chose not to try.
Announcing his decision last August not to run, Platini denied that an election fight against Blatter was “unwinnable.”
However, it looks that way now.
Graham Dunbar, The Associated Press