Asia lost a vital opportunity of winning FIFA elections as the pre-poll front-runner Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa of Bahrain lost to Swiss-Italian Gianni Infantino after extending a tough fight in the elections of the corruption-rocked world football governing body on February 26 in Zurich.
The 45-year-old Union of European Football Associations’ (UEFA) secretary general Infantino led the first round against Salman 88-85 before the shaven-head young man won the FIFA crown by winning the second and decisive round 115-88 in which four candidates took part.
In the first round, Prince Ali of Jordon took 27 votes and in the second round he got just four, which means his 23 votes swung to Infantino. And thus Asia had to blame itself for the defeat because of the differences between its own men Salman, the AFC reigning president, and Prince Ali, the former FIFA vice-president, who last year contested election against the outgoing FIFA chief Sepp Blatter, now facing a six-year ban.
A few days before the elections, sources close to Sheikh Salman told me during my stay in Bahrain that the former Bahrain Football Association’s (BFA) president Salman had almost ensured 100 votes.
Sources had claimed that he had also the support of around five leading countries of Europe besides the whole Africa. But the result was against expectations and Europe once again showed its supremacy.
The European media campaigned against Salman and repeatedly talked of his alleged involvement in the suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in Bahrain in 2011.
Prince Ali had also criticised Salman for not standing by his footballers who were also part of the demonstrations and had to face serious consequences for their alleged role in protests. Salman on each occasion denied his involvement in the episode, however.
Despite the ultimate outcome of FIFA elections, I think Salman fought bravely and impressively against Infantino and deserves appreciation.
He should be praised for fighting for the top slot and bringing FIFA out of the quagmire which it has been stuck in for the last few months because of corruption and bad governance.
Encouraging words for Salman also came from Bahrain’s Prime Minister Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa who said: “This honourable participation deserves congratulations, even if it has not culminated in a victory.
“This has revealed the confidence that Bahrain enjoys among international federations,” said the PM.
An editorial in Bahraini daily Akhbar al-Khaleej said: “Salman won the votes of 88 football federations. This by itself is a great achievement.”
Infantino pledged in the post-election speech that he would take all together. Infantino believes that the task is too big but he is determined that he will bring FIFA to the shore from the troubled waters. “Infantino is infantino, Blatter is Blatter,” he said. Blatter served FIFA for 18 long years before his ugly exit owing to a corruption scandal in which a dozen top officials of his football family across the world were also allegedly involved.
There are various challenges facing Infantino. He will not only have to implement a reform package but will have to enable FIFA to re-build its relations with its business partners and take them into confidence.
FIFA’s affiliated associations also need Infantino’s special attention. There should also be a mechanism to check the corruption within the national associations which has crippled the growth of football in various countries.
Infantino has already pledged that the grant of the associations would be more than doubled. It would boost the progress of the game, particularly in the developing countries.
Holding World Cups in 2018 and 2022 in Russia and Qatar, no doubt, will be the most important obligations of FIFA. A cloud of uncertainty is still hovering over the two major tournaments because an investigation is being carried out to know whether the bidding process for the events was manipulated or not.
It might put FIFA in deep trouble as it would then be the most difficult task to take the rights back from the hosts who have been preparing vigorously for hosting the events.
Besides electing its president FIFA Congress last week also approved a reform package. The reforms are based on the proposals made by the 2016 FIFA Reform Committee and the subsequent recommendations put before the Congress by the Executive Committee in the form of draft FIFA Statutes.
It was a landmark achievement as the reforms, if implemented, would pave the way for improvement in the governance of football in the world.
These would ensure separation of commercial and political decision-making with FIFA Council replacing FIFA executive committee.
The council would be responsible for setting the organisation’s overall strategic direction while the general secretariat would oversee the operational and commercial actions required to effectively execute that strategy.
The service term limit for FIFA president, FIFA council members and members of the Audit and Compliance Committee and of the Judicial bodies would be for a maximum of 12 years.
The proposed reforms include the disclosure of individual compensation (like the FIFA’s president’s salary), greater recognition and promotion of women in football and a commitment to enshrining human rights in FIFA Statutes.
The reforms also contain statutory principles of good governance for member associations and confederations, such as compulsory annual independent audit reports as well as independent judicial bodies to ensure a separation of powers on all levels of football structures.
“We stand united in our determination to put things right, so that the focus can return to football once again,” Issa Hayatou, who served as FIFA acting president, said.
In accordance with article 29 of the current edition of the FIFA Statutes the statutory amendments passed on February 26 will come into effect 60 days after the close of the Congress.
The world football family should back Infantino in his bid to cleanse the organisation and restore its image. It is hoped that Infantino would deliver and put FIFA and the world’s most captivating game back on the right track.