The arrests of several top international soccer officials on corruption charges this week will loom over proceedings at the 65th FIFA Congress in Zurich, Switzerland, where the governing body’s delegates will decide Friday whether or not to elect embattled FIFA President Sepp Blatter to a fifth term. The lone challenger, Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan, gathered unexpected support ahead of the election as leading soccer federations cut ties with Blatter’s regime.
Blatter was not among the current and former FIFA officials indicted Wednesday amid accusations that they accepted bribes to fix votes and secure television and event rights. But years of corruption allegations against Blatter, coupled with Prince Ali’s reputation as a candidate for reform, could lead to a tight result when delegates cast their votes Friday at about 4 p.m. local time. Blatter did his best to distance himself from this week’s arrests during the FIFA Congress’ opening ceremony.
“We cannot allow the reputation of FIFA to be dragged through the mud any longer. … The events of yesterday have cast a long shadow over football, and over this week’s Congress,” Blatter said in his first public comments since Swiss and U.S. authorities carried out their raids, reported the New York Times.
Held every four years, FIFA’s presidential election consists of up to two rounds of voting. Each of the organizations’ 209 member associations, located all over the world, can cast one vote in favor of their preferred candidate. Either Blatter or Prince Ali can win the election outright if they manage to secure two-thirds of the 209 votes on Friday. If both presidential candidates are unable to do so, a second round of voting will be held. Whoever secures more than half the votes in that round would be named FIFA’s president.
Prior to the arrests, Blatter was considered a virtual lock to acquire the two-thirds of 209 member association votes needed to retain his office. First elected as FIFA’s president in 1998, the 79-year-old has proven adept at navigating the complex politics of the international soccer world. He maintains a strong base of power in Asia and Africa, where national soccer confederations have reiterated their support for Blatter in Friday’s election.
Detractors have long accused Blatter of being corrupt, particularly after FIFA declined last September to make public the results of independent investigator Michael J. Garcia’s report on allegations of bribery in the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding processes. But he has never been definitively linked to any wrongdoing, the BBC reported.
Blatter’s inability to stamp out corruption within FIFA led several groups this week to publicly announce their support for Prince Ali. The Union of European Football Associations, which governs European soccer, and the Football Federation Australia each criticized the Blatter regime and backed Prince Ali’s candidacy. In all, Prince Ali purportedly has the backing of more than 60 soccer associations outside Europe and has enough support to at least force a second round of voting, the Guardian reports.
A FIFA vice president since 2011, Prince Ali has carved out a reputation as a voice for reform within the FIFA Executive Committee. He was one of the FIFA officials who called on the Blatter regime to promote transparency by making the results of Garcia’s investigation public, and his camp purportedly contacted police after an unnamed individual’s attempt to secure a bribe in exchange for election support last month. That dedication to fair play could help Prince Ali rally support amongst reform-minded Blatter critics. He will be given a chance to address the FIFA Congress ahead of the presidential election.
“We cannot continue with the crisis in FIFA,” Prince Ali said in a statement Wednesday, as quoted by Sky Sports. “A crisis that has been ongoing and is not just relevant to the events of today. FIFA needs leadership that governs, guides and protects our national associations.”
The FIFA Congress will also hear the Palestinian Football Association’s motion to eject Israel from the international soccer body. The PFA has accused Israeli soccer authorities of restricting the movement of Palestinian soccer players and of failure to prevent racist outbursts at Israeli soccer games. The measure would require approval from three-fourths of FIFA’s 209 associations -- two previous attempts to bar Israel failed to make it to a vote, Time reports.
But all eyes will be on the presidential election, where the fate of arguably the world’s most powerful sports figure hangs in the balance.