KEIR RADNEDGE in ZURICH —- Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa was working the hall bright and early before FIFA Congress had even begun in the Zurich Hallenstadion on Friday morning.
Smiling, suave, apparently confident of a presidential triumph to come, he bequeathed embraces, kisses, hugs and handshakes, leaving a wave of adulatory smiles in his apparently all-conquering wake.
So what went wrong?
Why, when aides had been predicting a potentially decisive 117 votes in the first round, when he had the customary string-pulling support of Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, when he had a shaken and fractured FIFA at his mercy, did it all implode so dramatically for Sheikh Salman?
Certainly the human rights allegations were persistently irritating, distractingly wearing. But Sheikh Salman was always firm in cutting off debate. In any case, FIFA associations have a solid track record for jumping to the defence when one of their own is under fire from the world at large and the western media in general. Just remember their defensive loyalty to Sepp Blatter.
Piecing together the details of a big-event vote is always tricky. On the one hand voters do not want to be identified, cautious of compromising their own political connections and potential moving forward; on the other, those who do talk in whispers are the ones who want to be associated with the ‘right’ decision.
But what appears to have happened is this:
Sheikh Salman was narrow favourite as the five candidates flew to Zurich at the start of the week.
He believed that, in preaching financial caution, he was painting himself as the responsible next president; that in painting Gianni Infantino as the irresponsible European he was scoring heavily on two counts (the rest of the world likes UEFA’s money but not its self-centred arrogance); and that the Asian ‘Olympic mafia’ would duly fall into subservient line.
OK, there would be odd small pockets of resistance. Such as Prince Ali’s western Asian alliance. Such as a handful of recalcitrant, anti-Hayatou Africans. But he would sweep almost all of Asia, pick up ‘neighbouring’ Oceania as an afterthought, most of Africa secured by the AFC-CAF development deal, maybe half of the Caribbean and even a thin slice of Europe after the Russia-Bahrain political liaison.
This would not all add up to the two-thirds necessary for an outright win in the first round. But it would certainly guarantee three figures and a winning momentum to stroll to a simple majority in the second round.
But, in two crucial areas, Sheikh Salman and his team missed a fatal trick.
Firstly, in his confidence, he overlooked the fact that this was an election run on western democratic lines – and in such contests the contenders have to bring headline offers to the table; no matter if, on opening the books, they have to break their campaign promises.
Sheikh Salman offered nothing but platitudes.
Secondly, fatally, as noted previously by this writer, he committed the awful own goal of deriding Infantino’s promise to expand and extend FIFA’s development spending.
This went down, in the minnow half of FIFA’s membership, like a lead balloon. For dozens of national associations, the regular injections of cash from the financial aid and Goal projects represent the decisive difference between existence and extinction.
Meddle with that at your peril.
The day before the vote all five candidates trailed round the conferences of the five confederations (Asia was in self-sealed lockdown) expounding their policies and manifestos. Sheikh Salman started brightly in the Renaissance Hotel at CONCACAF but, by the time he came to antagonistic but polite UEFA, in the Swissotel at Oerlikon by the end of the afternoon, he was clearly beginning to fade.
For all his smiling bonhommie on the hall floor before Issa Hayatou called congress to order, his address was woolly and without impact. He had promised a surprise. The only surprise was that he appeared to have nothing left in the tank. This, for a man confronting the massive challenge of rescuing Blatter’s sinking ship, was not reassuring.
Then, minutes later, Infantino delivered a fatal thrust by reminding delegates that FIFA’s money was “your money.” The hall erupted into unscripted applause. As several delegates conceded later, suddenly the mood music changed. Suddenly Infantino was no longer the over-smart polyglot ‘little European’, an official, a stand-in, a Plan B, not really one of them.
Suddenly, despite both Sheikh Salman and Prince Ali playing the appealing “I am one of you” card, here was a man who was on their side, a man who really had learned the lessons – better late than never – from what he saw and found during his triple circumnavigation of the world.
Waverers in Africa and the Caribbean and – to the two Sheikhs’ concern – little Oceania switched sides. Only a handful but enough to tip the balance of momentum so that Infantino emerged with the status of first-round leader on 88 votes to Sheikh Salman’s 85.
Now for the endgame.
At least three of the east Asians who, reluctantly, had deemed it politically expedient to vote for Sheikh Salman, perceived that the wind of change was with Infantino and changed sides. Brazil, who had abandoned the initial CONMEBOL consensus and voted for Salman, fell back into the Infantino line. A significant clutch of Prince Ali’s 27 voters, having fulfilled their first-round promise and sharing his antipathy to Sheikh Salman, came across to Infantino.
And, most decisively and ironically, so did the United States.
Sunil Gulati, the USSF president, had been a progressive ally of Prince Ali on the FIFA exco up until the Jordanian’s eviction by Sheikh Salman last year. Hence Gulati had promised the US vote to Prince Ali. But then, as Gulati said later: “We had given Gianni the assurance that when it mattered, if it mattered, we would be with him.”
Working the floor most assiduously for Infantino before the second round was Gulati and his lawyer, American influence at work within FIFA yet again and overtly in the cause of football itself.
Not Infantino’s Europeans.
They had supported him out of loyalty but not all of them, maybe, out of real belief or even will.
For Infantino, having led after the first round was huge. It brought him credibility in his own right for perhaps the first time in the three months of a campaign he had entered, formally, just one day before the deadline. It also sent out a message to supporters of Prince Ali and Jerome Champagne that this was the winning bandwagon to jump aboard.
Even then, the likelihood that Infantino would pick up a further 16 votes to attain the essential simple second round majority, appeared questionable. But more of the African and Caribbean votes crossed over. Only handfuls but enough, in their totality, to fire Infantino not merely beyond the simple majority but to an incontrovertible 115.
For Infantino, in the end, success in the second round meant a crushing victory. For Sheikh Salman and, intriguingly on the grand stage, for Sheikh Ahmad, a crushing defeat.
Promises, promises . . . Infantino, when he delves into the accounts, may not be able to keep all of them. But at least he made them. And every voter in every election everywhere wants to believe in a better, brighter tomorrow.
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