After falling to Blatter, Prince Ali sets sights on FIFA presidency again
Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein, the 40-year-old Jordanian candidate in Friday’s FIFA presidential election, doesn’t mince words when he talks about the stakes for an organization experiencing the biggest crisis in its history. “I really want to save this organization,” says Prince Ali, who got 73 votes in a losing cause against Sepp Blatter last May, “and bring back pride and faith from all football fans to what this organization is. It’s our last chance.”
None of the five candidates speaks in stronger terms than Prince Ali about the need for a complete overhaul of FIFA following the 41 arrests made so far in the past year as the result of the U.S. Department of Justice investigation into massive corruption among global soccer officials. Nor did any other candidate interviewed by SI.com have a more detailed plan about how to grow women’s soccer globally—Prince Ali wants to separate women’s soccer development funding completely from development for the men’s game so that the latter doesn’t take away from the former.
Prince Ali is also the only candidate who has recommended an independent oversight committee for FIFA should he become president—a committee chaired by former United Nations leader Kofi Annan.
A member of the Jordanian royal family, Prince Ali attended Princeton and was also schooled in the United Kingdom. His election manifesto can be found here.
He sat down for an interview on January 16 at a Caribbean Football Union event in Antigua and Barbuda, where SI.com also interviewed candidates Gianni Infantino of Switzerland and Jérôme Champagne of France (posting Thursday).
SI.com also interviewed candidate Tokyo Sexwale of South Africa on the Planet Fútbol podcast.
Here’s the interview with Prince Ali (lightly edited for length and clarity):
SI.com: I have several questions for you as you might expect, but the first one I have is just about the immense travel. We’re here in Antigua in the Caribbean, and right now in the U.S. presidential campaign people are going to Iowa and New Hampshire and acting like that’s a long way. Where have you been in the last two or three weeks?
Prince Ali: I’ve been all over the world visiting our national associations. I’m the kind of guy who likes to go on the ground and really hear from them and understand from them what their challenges are. And it’s amazing how much we can do, because it is such a diverse world and I’m all for development. So it’s been a real experience, and maybe uniquely I’ve been through it twice in one year (laughs). So it’s quite tough. But I’m really happy to do it, and it is going to be the style that I will do if I am elected FIFA president.
SI.com: Before we get to more serious stuff: Who’s your team?
Prince Ali: Arsenal for sure. That’s very well-known, and I’m very proud of them. I hope they win the Premiership this year. And of course before that my own national team, both our boys and our girls.
SI.com: I know the Jordan men’s team came within one step of qualifying for the last World Cup, and you’re hosting the Under-17…
Prince Ali: Under-17 Women’s World Cup, we’re very proud of that. And for our men’s team we had a hard time because we did have to play Uruguay in the last playoff. And I think the challenges of crossing such a distance is something that we have to work on [in organizing World Cup qualifying]. But for our women, I think they’re doing great on all levels. And I think that having an Under-17 Women’s World Cup is critical to encouraging our grassroots, and that’s what we’re there to do.
SI.com: This election may be the most important presidential election in FIFA history. Why do you want to be FIFA president?
Prince Ali: Well, I love the sport. I’ve been working for it all my life. I grew up on gravel pitches in Jordan. Jordan is not a country that is oil rich, and we had to work very hard. And I want to bring that experience. And coming from a national association, to bring it to FIFA and to really get into development for the sport. At the same time it is critical that we save the reputation of this organization. And as you said it is a critical election. We have to bring in good ethics, good values. I was taught that. My late father, King Hussein, he always taught us to be of service to people in everything we do and be ethical, and that’s the culture that we need right now in FIFA.
SI.com: In your years as a soccer administrator you have been the president of the Jordanian soccer federation. You spent four years very recently on the FIFA executive committee. What do you consider to be your major accomplishments in soccer?
Prince Ali: I started a foundation that is a non-profit called the Asian Football Development Project as I came into FIFA. And that is to help out both grassroots and women’s football and where we can help out society as well. And through it we’ve done things for example like building pitches and supporting football in refugee camps in Jordan for Syrian refugees as well as teaching them values through football and working with other NGOs around the world. From that to Cambodia, where we supported women who were victims of trafficking, and they ended up being the national football team of Cambodia at that time. To helping out with kids and equipment in Bhutan and so on. Now that concept of social responsibility and development is something I want to take global.
SI.com: As I understand it you’ve had a pretty big impact on women’s soccer as well in terms of working to change rules and allow the wearing of the hijab?
Prince Ali: Well, we’ve done a lot of things. I think that it is totally important that football is available for all. That was the reason behind that. And it’s not just about women. It’s a little bit misunderstood. It’s a change of the rule to allow the headscarf, but it also applies for example to Sikh men who want to play the game. And at the same time the idea of mutual respect. So I took the politics out of it. For example, after the ruling was changed we played in Iran, our women’s national team. And it was the first time they were allowed to play without having to wear a headscarf. So it’s a matter of mutual respect and just allowing everybody to play the game.
SI.com: How do you view women’s soccer? And how do you want to treat it as FIFA president?
Prince Ali: Women’s soccer is the biggest growth area in football now around the world. And yes, there needs to be a lot more balance in how things are done. If you look at the amount of viewership and support that was given to the World Cup and Canada, I don’t think that translated correctly into benefits for women’s soccer itself. In terms of national associations and around the world, there is the idea that if you invest in women’s soccer it will be at the expense of men’s game. So for me, in FIFA we need to separate women’s football development from that of the men so that they have their own development program. And I think that way we will increase much more the ability of women to get the support that they need and also to invest much more in the grassroots.
SI.com: So there are five candidates in this FIFA presidential race. I want to know from you what do you consider to be the path to victory? How are you going to get the votes from different parts of the world to get what you need?
Prince Ali: I’m a candidate for the world. I’m taking away the politics. We’re not relying on regions or how things were done in the past, frankly. But to have good ethics, good values, to be promoting the game and to really focus on the total development of football. Listening to national associations, that’s an important thing because they know what’s best for their regions and really reversing the pyramid. Making FIFA into a service organization, which is what it should be. And that’s why I’m doing this.
SI.com: I want to ask you about Sepp Blatter. He was FIFA president for a long time, from 1998 until 2015. Was he a good FIFA president or a bad FIFA president?
Prince Ali: I’m focused on the future, let me put it that way. That was the reason why I ran for the presidency. We have to take this organization and evolve it for the 21st century. We have to be open, not just in words but in reality. It’s the most popular sport in the world, and people need to know what’s going on inside our governing body. Interestingly enough, I was asked once, “How do you think FIFA should be in the future?” And I said, “Well, things will be going great when nobody really knows who the FIFA president is.” And I think that’s the mentality that we have to have for the future because we will know that things are going in the right way and have a real proper service organization.
SI.com: So in other words a good referee in a game is one you don’t notice, this can be the same thing. How much time have you spent in the U.S. over the years? What are your impressions of it? And what are your thoughts on the growth of soccer in the United States?
Prince Ali: Well, I grew up studying in the U.S. [studying at Princeton] and it was some of the best days of my life. I think the kind of U.S. values that are there is something that I want to bring also to FIFA, something that I’ve learned through my education there. As for U.S. Soccer, it’s going great and we’ve seen a lot of progress over the years thanks to [Don] Garber and to Sunil Gulati for working for the MLS and for U.S. Soccer. And there’s a lot more that can be done. But most of all I would congratulate not only the men’s game but the women’s game. You are the real leaders in that. And also help that has come to us from outside, from Mary Harvey and others who are working to help develop football around the world. There’s so much there, and it’s a real inspiration for women’s football across the world.
SI.com: Last May the United States Department of Justice sparked the biggest crisis in the history of FIFA with the arrests that took place in Zurich. And it was interesting: In some places around the world soccer officials were upset by this. And in some places soccer officials were clapping. Where were you on that scale?
Prince Ali: Well, it’s a real shame that it’s come to this, and it’s a real wakeup call that we have to bring this organization back to where it should be. It’s an umbrella for the world, and we do have a lot of challenges all across the world. And that’s why I am going out there to try and bring back this reputation. We want to be proud of wearing the FIFA badge again. It’s a difficult challenge, but we can do it in a short period of time.
And also bring back faith from our sponsors and all stakeholders in the game. Because at the end of the day their support is what goes back into the development of the sport from the grassroots level up.
SI.com: The voters in this election are not the fans of world soccer. They are the soccer politicians, one in each country around the world. Shouldn’t the fans have a stake in the vote, even a partial stake in this?
Prince Ali: I remember when you ran for FIFA president (smiles). It’s a very interesting question and sure, at the end of the day I do believe that all national associations are fully cognizant now of what the fans want for the future of football, and it’s a big responsibility. So in that respect I am very happy with what’s going on. Myself, I am challenging as a national association president, which maybe makes me different than others to say, “Look we can change the game obviously from within.” But we do need to get as much advice and support from any sector and from outside. I will be willing to do that.
SI.com: When it comes to the US governmental investigation of FIFA and soccer around the world are you in support of that? Was this a good thing?
Prince Ali: It has made a lot of changes to what’s going on. And to have come to the stage is in itself the problem. There’s opportunity though now to fix it, but we have to get it right in February. Let me be honest, we have wasted a year already.
SI.com: I’ve heard you say you were the only candidate among the five who can truly take FIFA into a new era. Why is that?
Prince Ali: Look, I’ve been straight and stable in my beliefs. I’ve always served football when I was in the Executive Committee I was the first to go for the Garcia Report into the World Cup [bids for 2018 and ‘22] to be published. I believe in openness, and I believe in really evolving the organization to where it should be. I don’t change my ways. I’m not somebody who one day supported one position and suddenly becomes a reformer for the next. I’ve been stable and in the service of football throughout my career and I want to make sure that we get back to where we should be for our boys and for our girls.
SI.com: You’re an important part of the Jordanian government as part of the royal family. You’re heavily involved in crisis management for Jordan when things happen, including terrorism. Is that something that you can then have the time for to be FIFA president?
Prince Ali: If I’m elected FIFA president obviously it will be a full-time dedicated job, and I will take full responsibility for what we do. Jordan is a country where we have been taught the values of working very hard. That’s what I’ve done in the past, and to be honest right now maybe somebody with experience in crisis management would be a good thing for the organization (smiles).
SI.com: There has been talk about expanding the men’s World Cup from 32 to 40 teams. Where are you on that?
Prince Ali: I think there’s room for expansion for sure. I have a bit of an issue with half-slots where you have for example in your confederation [CONCACAF] a half-slot, we have the same in Asia, and there are four confederations with that. And that is a problem simply because of the travel distance and the playoffs. So there is room for increase, in addition to having a full concept for it. The problem is this always comes up before an election and we have to guarantee that that is not the case. We bring in all the stakeholders, including the hosts and their opinions, to really come up with a situation which is good for all. But that must happen *after* you elect a new president.
SI.com: There’s been a lot of controversy about World Cups 2018 and 2022 being in Russia and Qatar, and now the Swiss Government has its own governmental investigation into these bids. Do you think 2018 should take place in Russia? Do you think 2022 should take place in Qatar?
Prince Ali: If there is proof of criminal activity in that, then it’s a different case. But other than that we have to allow for the fact that World Cups can be played anywhere in the world. Having said that, I do want to make sure that the way World Cup bids are done in the future is done correctly and properly. The double-bid was definitely a mistake, and we have to have a real system whereby we insure that things are done properly in the future. And that includes human rights and workers’ rights and the basic norms of rights for people from any host nation.
SI.com: You’re from that region in the Middle East, and there has been talk about questions about Qatar and its human rights record and the possibility of potentially thousands of workers dying in infrastructure preparation in Qatar as that country gets ready for World Cup 2022. How serious a problem is that in your mind?
Prince Ali: If I’m elected president, I will ensure [that not only] they have said the right things, I will ensure they stick by their word and make sure that it’s done.
SI.com: If you were to win the FIFA presidency who would you name as your general secretary?
Prince Ali: That’s a good question. I am obviously talking to people of the best caliber within the sport and looking at what the best options are. So I’m not going to reveal that right now, but I ensure to you that I will have the best team around for the future of football.
SI.com: What sort of qualities are you looking for in that position?
Prince Ali: Dedication, knowledge not just of the sport but also good governance, and people who are totally committed to the ideas of openness and really taking this organization the way it should be in the future.
SI.com: The United States is probably going to bid for World Cup 2026. Would you support that bid?
Prince Ali: Well good luck for that, I think that’s great. It does seem that it is fair to come back to the region. So I’m fully supportive of it coming back to CONCACAF, but at the end of the day if I’m president I will provide the best platform for those who have the best bid. And if it’s the United States, well done.
SI.com: If you win the election do you plan to move to Zurich?
Prince Ali: I will be working from Zurich. Having said that, I’m not the type of guy who sits behind a desk all that often. I’m going to be rolling up my sleeves and be on the ground and be with the national associations, that’s the way to do it. You have 209 members, and there’s so much work to do, especially in terms of development.
SI.com: FIFA will also decide at its Congress whether to adopt a lot of new reforms. Those include term limits of 12 years, disclosures of salaries, fewer standing committees. Do you support that?
Prince Ali: I think there have been a lot of reform programs and recommendations coming in the past. But you have to elect a president who is willing to implement what is right for the sport. And the latest batch of reforms, yeah, there’s a lot of good things out there. But I don’t think they go far enough. And therefore, I would want to take all the best ideas and really push forward where we need to go.
SI.com: You say they don’t go far enough, what are some examples of things you like to see go that far?
Prince Ali: Well, for example the term limits for the president. I mean, it should be two consecutive terms maximum, and that includes the Executive Committee. And also to really have an open disclosure of the organization. They’re all good suggestions, but they also have things like turning the Executive Committee into a Council which is much larger. I’m not sure if that’s the way we should be going, but there are good suggestions, such as when it comes to having one inclusion for women within decision-making. But again you’ve got to have somebody who implements it.
SI.com: Speaking of that new reform for women’s involvement in the running of FIFA, it would call for the 16% of this new FIFA Council to be women. Is that enough?
Prince Ali: I think that’s a start. Ideally, you want to reach a stage where it’s not gender-based in the first place. But again you are dealing with an organization that needs to evolve to the 21st century. But it will happen, and I can tell you from experience, from women that I’ve worked with in FIFA, they are incredible in what they can do, and not just to represent women but in terms of their ability to promote football.
SI.com: In December, five prominent sponsors of the World Cup sent a letter to FIFA demanding independent oversight of the FIFA reform process. Is that something that you would want yourself?
Prince Ali: I think that we need to get outside influence within the organization and also even within the game. We need to have representation from our players, from our coaches, from our leagues and our clubs as well.
SI.com: There are some people who think that FIFA just needs to be blown up and start over again. That’s a pretty drastic thing. You think it can be solved from within?
Prince Ali: Look, FIFA is the umbrella for the world and especially for developing nations. And it will be a real shame if it comes to that. I’m here because I really want to save this organization and bring back pride and faith from all football fans to what this organization is. It’s our last chance.
SI.com: We’re here in Antigua, and today you spoke to the Caribbean Football Union about the financial assistance program that FIFA provides for a lot of the smaller countries around the world that may never get to a World Cup, or it may be a really long time before they get to a World Cup. And you clearly tried to show some kinship that you come from an association that is a lot like theirs in some ways. When you talk about the financial assistance that’s coming from FIFA to individual countries, do you think that that should be done equally, the same per country, or should it be based on need?
Prince Ali: First of all, the financial assistance to members has not changed in two decades, and that’s a real key issue. Because if you want to promote the game you have to give them the assistance that they need and [you have] FIFA sitting on close to $1.7 billion in reserve for a non-profit organization, and that needs to go back to our game. There are places in the world like in the Caribbean where they don’t have the basic kits, the basic needs, pitches or even a dedicated national stadium. We need to give the ability for national associations to play the game and have the minimum of basic needs that are there to do it. I’ve had that experience in Asia, and I want to take that experience worldwide.
SI.com: Are you comfortable with the verification process that takes place within FIFA to make sure that the money that goes to all these countries around the world gets used on what it’s supposed to be used for?
Prince Ali: No, there’s a lot more that can be done in terms of development, but also you have to have a good audit of how things are done. That is crucial. But then again you also have to increase support for many other aspects of the game, whether it’s social responsibility, something I’m very keen on, and to help out football around the world. It’s not just about the elite level of the game, but it’s also about the amateurs, it’s about helping out people with disabilities to play the game—and that’s a big problem around the world. And also to help out local communities. It’s for the health and well-being of our societies, and FIFA can be the umbrella to do it.
SI.com: I’ve heard you say in the past that you think there is a culture of fear in FIFA over the last couple decades, at least when it comes to bringing up ideas that challenge power. Is that the case? Has that been the case?
Prince Ali: Yes.
SI.com: In what ways?
Prince Ali: Well, you know the problem is that there are rewards for some and punishment for others depending on politics. I want to remove that completely. We are there to serve the game, and when we have an open organization, and when we have an open Congress where people come in and explain their needs and not be sort of dictated to, then we’ll be O.K., we’ll be in good shape. So it really is a change of culture, and it’s not difficult. It’s just common sense.
SI.com: One of the favorites in this election is from your region, Sheikh Salman of Bahrain. And there is an accusation by human rights groups that in 2011 his country singled out athletes, including national team soccer players, imprisoned them and even tortured them. These are accusations that he denies. You know of these I’m sure. What do you think? Should that prevent him from running for FIFA president?
Prince Ali: Look, I’m focused on my own election, but I will tell you something: The reality is, and I leave it up to any other candidate, whether he was involved or not involved, but the point is that what he didn’t do was protect his players. And if you want that as a leader for FIFA, I don’t agree with that concept.
SI.com: With all this travel around the world, who is financing your campaign and all of the costs?
Prince Ali: Well, it’s very difficult obviously to do all this traveling, and it’s not coming from my country but it’s coming from friends, from family who believe in what I can do. It’s private funding, and I’m very glad and happy that that’s taking place.
SI.com: In the end, what is the biggest difference between you and the other four candidates for FIFA president that should cause people to choose you to be the next FIFA president?
Prince Ali: My ethics, my values coming from a national association and trying to bring a new culture. I have experience, and I’ve taken a real firm stand in terms of the future of football. And most importantly I’m doing this because I love the game and I want to see it develop across the world as much as possible. I want people to be proud of football again both from our boys and our girls.