KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY —- If boxing’s scoring system were in play then Michael Van Praag ended the first round of the FIFA presidential challengers contest as decisive points winner ahead of Prince Ali with Luis Figo nowhere.
Reigning champion (and world federation president) Sepp Blatter remained content to eye up his May-time rivals from the comfort of a ringside seat.
UEFA Congress in Vienna was the first opportunity for the candidates to strut their stuff on the same stage. Blatter declined, just as he had dismissed the invitation to a four-way TV debate. He preferred to scatter platitudes from his presidential balcony rather than exchange home truths in the street below.
Prince Ali bin Al Hussein of Jordan, FIFA’s outgoing Asian vice-president, was first out of his corner, bringing “greetings from my home country of Jordan” which was a country – and no-one could miss the allusion – “that believes in the pursuit of values, such as integrity, honesty and respect.”
This was a crucial time for football with concern from both inside and outside the game about the manner in which FIFA was run. He perceived an “appetite for change . . . new leadership . . . better support to the national associations . . . meaningful investment in football . . .a better FIFA . . . one based on respect and dignity . . . governed with a spirit of inclusion and transparency.”
Programme to come
Prince Ali was campaigning for “a change of culture and a departure from FIFA’s authoritarian approach to strategy.” Next month he would publish his detailed programme “based on the input of colleagues around the world” but which seems dangerously late in the campaigning day.
He did have some good lines.
“FIFA, from a commercial perspective,” said Prince Ali, “has in many ways been riding the wave of European football’s success which has also helped directly the success of the FIFA World Cup. But while the popularity of the World Cup has soared, the image of the organisation has sadly declined.”
An improvement in FIFA’s image would bring an explosion in commercial growth to finance far more valuable support to FAs around the world still struggling to provide kit, pitches, infrastructure and coaching development.
Figo followed on with remarks which addressed similar issues of FIFA’s image and a need for expanded investment in grassroots development. But he undermined his own credibility as a heavyweight by quoting a cv which, his stellar playing notwithstanding, was critically lightweight in managerial and administrative experience.
Success after success
The same could not be said for Van Praag. Not in any shape or form. Quite the opposite. The president of the Dutch federation teetered dangerously on the brink of overplaying his hand in boasting of his success in business and football administration.
Once he had progressed beyond “my personal motivation” Van Praag hit a barnstorming rhythm of concern, criticism and solutions.
“The beautiful heritage of international football has been tarnished by ever-continuing accusations of corruption, bribery, nepotism and waste of money,” raged Van Praag. “Don’t get me wrong, FIFA has accomplished great things. But the current state of disarray asks for a change in leadership . . . It is the responsibility of our generation to clean up the mess.
“Effective change is simply impossible under the leadership of the same person who is responsible for the state FIFA is in.”
Van Praag proposed himself as a transitional candidate. He wanted only one four-year term “to start the normalisation process towards a more open, democratic and credible FIFA, to be handed over to the next generation in 2019.
“Since I do not have the ambition to be re-elected I can devote all my time to starting the normalisation process without having to worry about my chances of re-election after four years.”
But it was not all rhetoric. Van Praag, with an eye to votes beyond Europe, proposed quadrupling the annual allowance to member associations to $1m.
Less popular in football’s far-flung regions may be his ambition for greater transparency. He promised to publish the Garcia Report into the 2018-2022 World Cup bid scandal “as soon as legally possible,” would publish details of the president’s remuneration and encourage a wider participation in “important decisions that are currently taken by the president himself.”
Van Praag was also the only one of the three prepared to talk directly about Blatter and the Blatter ‘mission’. In a clever twist he revealed that he had already discussed offered Blatter “an important role as Active Honorary President to continue to expand his legacy.”
Congress granted Van Praag a rousing burst of applause. He was, after all, one of them, telling it the way many delegates saw it.
But not all and almost certainly not enough.
UEFA president Michel Platini cautioned later that he thought most of the other regional confederations were already “in lock-down” and were unlikely even to grant Blatter’s rivals a platform, let alone their votes. And not only far afield but closer to home.
“Some people,” said Platini darkly, “have been in FIFA a long time and support Mr Blatter . . . even if they are European.”
So, seconds out, round two – wherever that may be.