SUNDAY TIMES - Hold your noses: it's FIFA's game of thrones
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Sunday Times Opinion & Analysis By Carlos Amato, 2016-02-21

Hold your noses: it's FIFA's game of thrones

Sepp Blatter’s long reign leaves a bad smell.
Image: GETTY IMAGES

Will Fifa be cleansed on Friday in Zurich, when the heir to Sepp Blatter, its oozing Ozymandias, is crowned? Don't hold your breath. Hold your nose instead.

Football's ruling body still radiates the rancid stench that Blatter's long reign left, and it will stink long after the presidential poll. Yes, constitutional reforms are afoot, but an ingrained culture is hard to eradicate, and the rot is so deep that term limits and salary transparency will be about as transformative as dropping a bar of soap into a blocked sewer.

For starters, Fifa is legally shackled to its commitment to holding the next two World Cups in noxiously autocratic regimes - Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022.

And the shadow of the graft-busting investigation led by the US attorney-general Loretta Lynch still darkens Fifa's door. The prosecution has not yet reached its conclusion, although it may not ever truly do so. The word in the corridors of power is that Lynch is being urged not to lance the suppurating boils of the upcoming tournaments too deeply, lest football's illness infects the real world of geopolitics and endangers Western interests.

The Russian bear must not be kicked, and the gusher of the Qatari sovereign wealth fund must not be switched off. The hideous truth is both tournaments must and will go ahead.

To compound the crisis, the two leading candidates to win the vote - Bahrain's Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa and Switzerland's Gianni Infantino - are the wrong men to drive the root-and-branch reformation that Fifa needs.

Al-Khalifa is a prince of a violently repressive monarchy, linked with the torture of dissidents in Bahrain during the Arab Spring uprising. He wields immense power in football's Asian frontier, and seems to have won the king-making African vote. (Our own candidate, Tokyo Sexwale, has failed to win the support of the Confederation of African Football and has little hope of winning.)

There is something sickening about the prospect of such a profoundly anti-democratic figure - created by royal power and attendant kleptocratic wealth - on the throne of what ought to be the people's game.

As for Infantino, he is by all accounts a brainy, multilingual administrator, capable of spouting bland platitudes in Arabic, Spanish, German, French, Italian and English. But for many onlookers, he lacks the clout and vision to reimagine the global game.

It's not Infantino's fault that my word processor's spellcheck function thinks his actual surname is "Infection". Nor is it his fault that the dramatic fall of his old boss at the Union of European Football Associations, Michel Platini, thrust him into unearned presidential candidacy. But Fifa does not need a fresh-faced bureaucrat on its throne. It needs a barbarian at the gates.

Infantino hails from Brig, a village next door to Blatter's home town of Visp, in the mountainous southern canton of Valais. The citizens of the region are known across Switzerland for their rural mother wit - a knack for improvising solutions. By Friday, Infantino may somehow expand on the support he has won from the South American Football Confederation and Uefa delegates, and thus outmanoeuvre Al-Khalifa's formidable campaign.

If he does, another question arises: should Fifa once again be led by a Swiss citizen? And even if Al-Khalifa prevails, will Swiss law and society finally take responsibility for the glutinous fondue of corruption that has bubbled away at Fifa's Zurich headquarters for decades?

The relationship between Switzerland and Fifa is increasingly vexed. The country has prided itself on its long tradition of neutrality, participatory democracy and the rule of law.

But in recent years the Swiss state has been forced to confront the reality that the glaring flaws in its own jurisprudence - in banking secrecy and in the lax regulation of the global sports bodies it hosts - have hobbled the rule of law in other lands, with toxic effects across the world.

Banking secrecy has been reversed to some extent, and now the Swiss attorney-general's office has been goaded by the FBI's audacity into lodging its own criminal case against Fifa's old guard.

I visited Zurich and Lucerne this month, and encountered much laconic humour about the implied national embarrassment of Fifa's comeuppance. At the annual Lucerne carnival, a troupe of performers dressed as Fifa mandarins gathered signatures for a Lucerne World Cup in 2018, and rewarded all signatories with wads of fake dollars.

The franc is certainly not fake - for example, the right to have a pee in a Zurich train station will set you back R22.50. I went to drink a short beer at the lavish Baur au Lac hotel - the notorious spiritual home of Fifa's parasitic cardinals, and the scene of the fateful FBI raid - and came away R150 poorer and considerably sadder. The astonishing wealth of Switzerland is in part the fruit of its mighty entrepreneurial culture. But its harbouring of illicit foreign money certainly hasn't hurt.

But then again, who are we South Africans to talk, given our own alleged purchase of World Cup votes? It doesn't matter how cunningly the South African Football Association and/or former president Thabo Mbeki outsourced one of the two alleged Jack Warner bribes to Fifa secretary-general Jérôme Valcke. This lurid tale has tainted us, and broken the dream of football as an uplifting force.

And whatever happens on Friday, that dream won't be back for a while yet.

The men who would be king

SHEIKH SALMAN AL-KHALIFA

Nationality: Bahraini.

Pros: Rich, powerful, well placed to drive lucrative commercial growth in Asia; has Africa’s backing.

Cons: Tainted by accusations of complicity in torture and kidnapping in Bahrain. Lacks democratic credibility.

Odds to win: 4/ 7

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GIANNI INFANTINO

Nationality: Swiss.

Pros: Has the support of football’s European commercial heartland and South America. Wants to expand World Cups to 40 teams and start multicountry hosting.

Cons: Something of a grey man. Seems to lack the vision to drive a culture change.

Odds to win: 7/4

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PRINCE ALI BIN AL HUSSEIN

Nationality: Jordanian.

Pros: Experience as Fifa deputy president — he knows the ropes.

Cons: Experience as Fifa deputy president — he’s part of the problem. Like Al-Khalifa, a rich prince trying to make football his plaything.

Odds to win: 10/1

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TOKYO SEXWALE

Nationality: South African.

Pros: Has proved his worth outside football. Would champion Africa and the global south.

Cons: Lacks football experience; failed miserably to win African backing.

Odds to win: 40/1

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