Panama City: In a FIFA presidential election where all candidates are presenting themselves as reformers, Asian soccer boss Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa is making his pitch as the safest option to officials beleaguered by the organisation’s crisis.
The president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has his own plans for change at world soccer's governing body, including splitting FIFA into separate ‘business’ and ‘football’ entities, and says reform is an ‘ongoing process’.
He also wants to be a very different style of president to the man he supported for many years, the now banned Sepp Blatter. Salman sees the role as non-executive and wants to delegate rather than, what he terms, “micromanage”.
But, perhaps conscious of the fact that it is FIFA’s 209 member associations, and not public opinion, that will decide the next FIFA president at a congress on Feb. 26, Salman also strikes a slightly defiant tone when discussing the corruption crisis that has hit the governing body.
“I don’t believe what is happening in the rest of the world is FIFA’s mistake. We can’t blame FIFA for all that happens in football in the rest of the world,” the Bahraini told Reuters in an interview.
In total, 41 individuals and entities have been charged in the United States in a corruption sweep that has rocked soccer worldwide and sent FIFA into an unprecedented crisis.
Those officials charged come from the CONCACAF confederation which governs soccer in North and Central America and the Caribbean and CONMEBOL which presides over South American football.
Salman believes it is unfair that FIFA itself has been tarnished by the behavior of confederation officials.
“If something happens in CONCACAF or South America, people say it is FIFA; I don’t think it is so. This is purely a confederation issue. If you look at FIFA with 400-plus staff, I don’t think there is a single guy within FIFA (staff) that has been convicted of wrongdoing,” he said.
Those are sentiments which will not impress those pushing for radical reform at FIFA but they may well strike a chord with federation officials who were happy enough with the status quo under Blatter that they re-elected him in May, just days after the FBI’s first wave of arrests at a FIFA hotel in Zurich.
Blatter won 133 votes, defeating challenger Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, who picked up 73 votes, and most of those who voted in that election will have a ballot in February.
Critics say that even if, technically, those involved in corruption were conducting confederation business rather than strictly FIFA affairs, the global body has a responsibility for cleaning up the game.
Salman says that duty goes well beyond FIFA.
“I think cleaning the game needs the support not just from FIFA. You need other stakeholders to be involved whether it is governments, organizations, media.
“Getting the information is not so easy; you can’t expect FIFA to be the investigator of each country or each national association, to know exactly what they are dealing, what contracts they are signing, etc. It goes beyond that,” he said.
The Blatter-voting core in FIFA might also be encouraged to hear Salman talking of reviewing the contracts of U.S. law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan and New York-based crisis and communications adviser Teneo who were hired by FIFA after the May arrests.
Salman initially supported Frenchman Michel Platini in the election before he was suspended and then banned by FIFA’s Ethics Committee following an investigation into a 2 million Swiss franc payment from Blatter’s FIFA in 2011.
It was only when Platini’s candidature looked doomed that Salman stepped into the race and the language he uses to describe that decision suggests he wants to be a candidate of careful change.
“There has to be someone that we feel comfortable (with) and trusted to take this organization forward. Consulting with the stakeholders, from my confederation and others as well, I think that the encouragement is there”.
Prince Ali is standing again in the February vote along with former FIFA deputy secretary general Jerome Champagne of France; Gianni Infantino, who is Swiss and the current general secretary of the European soccer body UEFA; and South African businessman and politician Tokyo Sexwale.
Salman though, who this past week was drumming up support in the Caribbean and Central America, is quietly confident that he has collected enough support to win.
“I feel that my chances are good. I have been through elections before and believe me I won’t put my name into the hat unless I know that I have a good chance of winning,” he said.