Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1284, (25 February - 2 March 2016))
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1284, (25 February - 2 March 2016))

Ahram Weekly

Will Africa’s leaders make the right choice?

Osasu Obayiuwana wonders whether Africa’s leaders will make the right choice in the FIFA elections in Zurich tomorrow

FIFA candidates
FIFA candidates
Al-Ahram Weekly

Africa’s 54 national associations – the largest continental bloc in the world body – will hold the key to victory, for one of the five candidates wanting to succeed FIFA boss Sepp Blatter.

While a significant number within the sport’s fraternity have been more interested in pre-election skullduggery, the crucial issues, especially for African football, are being relegated to the background, at a time when the continent’s interests, in the short and long term, should critically inform the minds of those casting votes at the Hallenstadion in Zurich this Friday. 

With Europe’s top clubs, national associations and particularly UEFA, clearly determined – by its significant financial and political support for Gianni Infantino – to have a far more influential, if not decisive, say in the way that FIFA is run, it is purely logical to assume that the competing – and often conflicting interests of the developing world, which are no less important, are what ought to primarily inform their voting preferences.

But the unanimous decision by 12 members of the executive committee (exco) of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) to throw their support behind Sheikh Salman, the president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), rather than South Africa’s Tokyo Sexwale, the only African in the race, and the second from the continent, in FIFA’s 112-year history, to ever contest the presidency, was an extremely bad one.

The Kigali declaration was certainly not the music that Sexwale, the former premier of South Africa’s Gauteng Province and former minister of human settlements, who has made a fortune in business, wanted to dance to.

But a top source close to the Sexwale campaign, with first-hand knowledge of the ruthless nature of African football politics, was pretty blunt about what he described as a major flaw in the Sexwale campaign strategy.

“Tokyo spent a lot of time speaking to various political leaders across the world, forgetting that they are not the ones that are going to cast the votes at the congress. The people that matter are the ones who vote and these are the people that Tokyo should have courted, in a very serious way.

“He did not do that and there were very strong voices, across the continent that expressed their unhappiness about it...

“The circumstances under which Tokyo had the opportunity to contest for the presidency gave him the ideal situation to carry out a campaign that could have led him to victory. I am not sure that a real opportunity for an African to emerge as FIFA president will emerge any time soon, after this election,” the highly knowledgeable source said.

Since 2013, Sexwale and this writer have been colleagues on FIFA’s Anti-Racism/Anti-Discrimination Task Force. It has afforded the opportunity, over the last three years, to have extended and deep conversations with him about the general state of the world game, his early life in South Africa and detention in the notorious Robben Island Prison with Nelson Mandela, as well as his subsequent climb to the top of South Africa’s political and business life.

It is extremely difficult to successfully argue that a man who had the fortitude to survive a tortuous decade on Robben Island and play a crucial political role in taking South Africa from the dark apartheid years into a truly democratic era, lacks the skills to lead FIFA.

But the hard, unforgiving nature of global football politics has little time to recognise the sterling qualities of people that have been unable to grasp its nuances, as they seek to grasp the levers of power.

It is a lesson that Sexwale, who wouldn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, be described as naive, is learning the very hard way, as the election beckons.

If Africa’s top leaders sincerely believe that Sheikh Salman is the best man for FIFA’s top job, I’m afraid that they will have an extremely difficult time to prove their case to an objective audience.

For a start, the Bahraini’s rise to the top of football’s food chain is directly linked to his privileged status in a state not fully transparent. How can a FIFA president that is a product of such a society be the person best placed to usher in a desperately needed period of transparency, meritocracy and real democracy in the organisation, which it desperately needs?

And, as most commentators have correctly observed, Salman has several questions to answer, regarding the alleged role he played in the detention of several players in his home country, who were a part of the pro-democracy protests that swept the Arab world at the time.

Considering the institutional flaws that have brought FIFA to its knees, it is clear the organisation needs a president with the executive authority to carry out needed reforms.

Salman’s position, that he is not interested in serving as an executive president, is a wrong one to adopt.

FIFA’s problems do not come from having a powerful executive president. They come from the president’s powers not being subjected to proper oversight, to ensure that he does not abuse the powers of his office.

As long as the right statutory checks and balances are put in place, a powerful executive president, acting transparently and in the game’s best interests, is what FIFA needs at this crucial juncture in its history.

Jordan’s Prince Ali, whose background is even more privileged than that of Salman, has admittedly done a very decent job of promoting the game in his continent, with the Asian Football Development project. His position on many governance issues can hardly be faulted either.

But, like Salman, a person whose position in life is directly linked to the privileges of royal birth, Ali is not exactly in the best position to champion the cause of reform.

Infantino, UEFA’s general secretary, whose emergence in the presidential race is purely circumstantial following the ban of its erstwhile president, Michel Platini, has been described by many as intelligent and forward-thinking.

But can he really be trusted to act for the good of the global game, rather than the benefit of European football, should he emerge as president?

One candidate that cannot be accused of not articulating, clearly, his vision for a post-Blatter FIFA, is Jerome Champagne.

Champagne’s series of position papers on the current state of football and the way in which the administration of the game should evolve, in order to meet the disparate needs of FIFA’s 209 members, reveals the mind of a deep thinker, unafraid to chart a bold, fresh roadmap for a troubled institution he is keen to lead.

And, unlike all the other candidates, he is the only one that has a first-hand understanding of FIFA’s inner workings and its institutional defects, having served in various key positions as deputy general secretary, delegate of the FIFA president and director of international affairs during his 11-year career there.

That Champagne’s record at FIFA has withstood the intense scrutiny of his critics and the media, keen to find dirt that could torpedo his campaign, is an eloquent testimony to the integrity with which he did his job at FIFA.

Again, this writer’s professional and personal association with Champagne spans 12 years, giving me the privilege of observing him at very close quarters and forging what is a very good friendship, in which we have extremely robust and “no-holds-barred” conversations about the game. Sometimes, we hold different positions but we admittedly agree on most.

If there must be another European president of FIFA, there is no doubt that Champagne is eloquently qualified for the position and will approach the administration of the game with a global nuance, in which the problems and needs of smaller countries like Samoa, Rwanda and Fiji are no less important to him than those of England, Germany and Spain.

With regards to Africa’s strategic interests and needs, Champagne has a very good understand of the problems in the various countries around the continent and has shown demonstrable commitment to bringing needed change in governance, earning him the respect of serious-minded people across the continent.

It is one thing to be eminently qualified for an elective position and another to win the election.

Lacking the firepower and institutional backing of Infantino and Salman, Champagne acutely knows that he is in for a David and Goliath battle in Zurich. But counting him out would be a grave mistake.

As Harold Wilson, the former British prime minister, poignantly observed, “A week is a long time in politics”. The previous seven days were certainly the longest in the history of FIFA’s pre-presidential election politicking.

One can only hope that Africa’s leaders will be on the right side of history on 26 February and vote for the best candidate. As they say in French, “Nous verrons ce qui se passe” (we shall see what happens).

The writer, a former BBC journalist and the associate editor of New African Magazine in London, is one of the continent’s leading writers on football politics and governance.

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