The candidates to clean up world soccer include one suspected of exposing pro-democracy protesters to torture, one associated with the tainted 2010 World Cup, and another banned on suspicion of bribery.
The candidates to replace Sepp Blatter as president of FIFA are in. Unfortunately, the list is somewhat less inspiring than the current field of Republican candidates for the White House.
Seven men (and zero women) have made the final ballot to lead the world’s governing body of soccer, and at least half of them are no stranger to controversy. These are the candidates.1
Platini attends the Preliminary Draw of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia at The Konstantin Palace on July 25, 2015 in Saint Petersburg, Russia.Photograph by Alex Livesey — FIFA via Getty Images
The former French star and President of the European soccer association UEFA is currently banned from soccer-related activities due to an investigation into what Swiss prosecutors suspect may be a bribe authorized by Blatter, and what they already have described as a “disloyal” payment. Platini famously voted for Qatar in the notorious double-tender for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, which for many soccer fans puts a question mark over his probity, to say nothing of his sanity. To cap it all, Blatter insinuated with apparent delight, in an interview Wednesday with the Russian news agency ITAR-Tass, that Qatar only won the 2022 vote because of political pressure exerted through Platini by France’s then-president Nicolas Sarkozy.2
Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa
Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa arrives for a meeting with the FIFA task force in Doha February 24, 2015.Photograph by Mohamad Dabbouss — Reuters
The head of the Asian Football Confederation and member of the Bahraini royal family is currently battling accusations that he assisted in the repression of pro-democracy protesters in the tiny Gulf state during the Arab Spring. The royal family preferred to call in Saudi Arabian tanks to quell the demonstrations rather than give in to demands for greater representation and less corruption. The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy alleges that “more than 150 athletes, coaches and referees were jailed after a special committee, chaired by… Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, identified them from protest photos.” Some of them were later tortured while in jail, according to local rights groups. Sheikh Salman told the BBC that the allegations are “nasty lies.”3
Sexwale attends a press conference at SAFA House on October 27, 2015 in Johannesburg, South Africa.Photograph by Lefty Shivambu — Gallo Images/Getty Images
Try to suppress the thought of Tom Jones singing “Sexwale, Sexwale, you’re my Sexwale…” The proper pronunciation is Sekh-WAH-ley. The South African political prisoner-turned-minister-turned-millionaire once shared a prison with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island. Sexwale was a member of both the Bid Committee and the Local Organising Committee for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, a tournament now overshadowed by accusations that bribes were paid to secure hosting rights. There is widespread speculation in South Africa that he could be one of the “co-conspirators #15 and #16” not yet named in the Department of Justice’s indictment of FIFA bosses and sports marketing officials. He denies any wrongdoing, as do the South African soccer association and government.4
Champagne smiles before a summit on FIFA at the European Union headquarters in Brussels on January 21, 2015.Photograph by John Thys — AFP/Getty Images
Lord knows FIFA needs more champagne moments, but whether the former French diplomat is the man to deliver them is another question. According to The Guardian, the man was happy enough to work under Blatter for 11 years (the time largely covered by the DoJ’s investigation) before being forced out in a political struggle by Platini. Many suspect him of being a Blatter strawman, willing to step down on the off chance that his former mentor can miraculously exonerate himself and return to his throne (still Blatter’s hope, according to the Tass interview).5
Infantino smiles at the start of the UEFA Euro 2016 play-off draw ceremony on October 18, 2015 in Nyon, Switzerland.Photograph by Alain Grosclaude — AFP/Getty Images
UEFA’s secretary-general is widely seen as being to Platini what Champagne is to Blatter. Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko said Tuesday that “if Michel returns, Infantino will withdraw his candidacy.” Blatter helpfully observed to ITAR-Tass that most of the northern European national associations detest Infantino.6
Musa Hassan Bility
Bility speaks on his mobile phone on June 19, 2015, after announcing plans to stand for the presidency of FIFA, in the Liberian capital Monrovia.Photograph by Zoom Dosso — AFP/Getty Images
The president of the Liberian Football Federation, Bility runs the country’s biggest oil import company in his spare time. (He is also an alum of Johnson and Wales University, according to his LinkedIn page). Bility isn’t the official candidate of the African federation, CAF, and may leak a lot of his natural support base to rivals as a result. But the endorsement of the the current CAF president, Issa Hayatou, could be a mixed blessing: Hayatou, who is acting as FIFA president until the election, is himself under investigation for allegedly receiving multiple bribes.7
Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein
Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan talks to the audience as he attends ‘Reforming FIFA’ at Chatham House on September 10, 2015 in London, England.Photograph by Christopher Lee — Getty Images
It’s not exactly a unique selling point, but the Jordanian prince can at least boast that he doesn’t have a section specifically labeled “Corruption Allegations” on his Wikipedia page, which is more than some of the others can. Prince Ali won 73 votes (most of them from Europe) when he challenged Blatter for the FIFA presidency in May. Although unsuccessful, his bid fatally weakened Blatter’s position, and the incumbent announced his intention to resign within a week. While it’s too early to pick favorites, and there is a lot of campaigning still to do, Prince Ali’s stand against Blatter, and his relative lack of baggage, seems to make him by far the easiest compromise candidate to agree on. But that would also suggest that FIFA is logical and transparent. It is not an organization reputed to be either of those things.
At the moment, FIFA can’t even say how long its election will take.