Luis Figo proposes expanded World Cup field on FIFA presidency platform
LONDON (AP) — Out of his comfort zone, and being quizzed on football politics at Wembley Stadium rather than playing there, Luis Figo made his pitch to run the world game on Thursday.
Despite little experience of FIFA, beyond playing in World Cups and winning its 2001 player of the year award, Figo believes he is equipped to clean up soccer's scandal-scarred governing body.
"FIFA deserves something different," Figo said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Something has to change with the image right now of the organization."
Press the former Portugal winger, though, to go beyond generalizations to explain why Sepp Blatter's 17-year reign should end and he is more guarded. In the four-candidate vote in May, the 78-year-old Blatter is seeking a fifth four-year term after reversing his previous decision to step aside in May.
"Mr. Blatter has done in all these years very positive things to football," Figo said in an executive box overlooking the pitch at England's national stadium. "But right now I think the organization needs a change, needs a new era and ... this is why I am presenting for the presidency of FIFA with my manifesto."
The headline from the manifesto: a potentially radical overhaul of the World Cup. The current 32-team tournament could be increased to 40 teams or even two 24-team competitions simultaneously on two continents followed by a knockout phase in one nation.
That would ensure participation of 48 of the 209 members, making a President Figo more appealing to nations who do not qualify regularly for the quadrennial extravaganza.
"Of course I will need votes to make my proposal effective," Figo said. "I want to open a debate in the congress because ... each confederation wants more spots in the World Cup."
Increasing the number of finalists would also spread FIFA's wealth. Figo is proposing draining FIFA's bank balance, by redistributing $1 billion of $1.5 billion reserves — retained by Blatter in case a World Cup is canceled — to national federations. On top of that, Figo would spread half of FIFA's $2.5 billion revenue over four years to associations to fund grassroots football.
Offering legitimate financial incentives in return for votes is Figo's strategy to outdo Blatter and convince FIFA's 209 members to back him in the vote in Zurich in May. Another is offering a seat on the executive committee for every country that has won the World Cup.
Blatter, without even producing a manifesto, has already secured the backing of confederation heads of Asia, Africa, South America and Oceania who can influence their member associations but don't have a vote themselves.
"There are obstacles that will have to be overcome," acknowledged Figo, who played for Barcelona, Real Madrid and Inter Milan, before posing for the cameras with his manifesto.
Europe is split, with Blatter's three rivals all linked to Nyon-based UEFA. Michael van Praag is head of the Dutch federation, while both Figo and FIFA vice president Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan employ a London-based consultancy firm which also works for UEFA.
Is Figo just a puppet for UEFA President Michel Platini? "If you follow my career in football you see that I am an independent person."
Figo is the only former player in the contest and is dipping into wealth accumulated while winning titles in Spain and Italy to fund the push for power.
"Fortunately I had a successful career," Figo said. "I have the (cash) balance to have the chance to be here right now and support my campaign."
In the cut and thrust of FIFA campaigns, the game itself can often be overlooked. Figo is proposing several changes to the rules. He wants trials for "sin bins" — removing players temporarily instead of dismissing them — for unsporting behavior to referees, and to revert to the old rule where a player is offside regardless of whether they are directly involved in play.