On Feb. 17, 2011, Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl announced his candidacy for FIFA president, releasing his platform for change and his campaign video as the People's Choice to replace Sepp Blatter. Wahl had 43 days to be formally nominated by one of the world's 208 national federations before the final deadline. This is his inside story of what happened over those six weeks.
If I'm being honest, the high point and the low point of my campaign for FIFA president took place minutes apart in the lobby of the Hilton Arc de Triomphe hotel in Paris on March 21. The Hilton was the official hotel for the UEFA Congress, the annual gathering of the people who run the 53 European soccer nations, and I had crossed the Atlantic to do two things:
1. Show I was serious about my campaign
2. Meet with officials from various FAs to see if they would nominate me by the April 1 deadline.
At 9:30 that morning, there were only a half-dozen people in the plush lobby of the Hilton. One of them was Mohamed bin Hammam, the Qatari who'd just announced his FIFA presidential candidacy three days earlier. But I was there to see someone else, a top official from a World Cup-winning FA who had (to my delight) agreed to meet face-to-face to discuss my campaign. I had long ago realized that my best chance for landing a nomination was a mid- or large-sized FA, mainly because the small nations are so indebted to the development money train of FIFA's GOAL program that they would never risk losing it by nominating an outsider.
But if I could persuade one of the world's most respected, successful FAs to nominate me? Now that would make history. It got off to a perfect start. I shook the official's hand, and as we walked over to a quiet booth in the corner he stopped and said a quick hello to Bin Hammam, who now saw that I had landed a meeting with a very big fish. That couldn't have gone any better if I'd planned it, I thought to myself. (Sure enough, a few minutes later I got a long-awaited e-mail from Bin Hammam's assistant confirming a meeting between me and Bin Hammam later that day.)
After some initial pleasantries, my conversation with the World Cup-winning FA man started off straightforward enough. "Why won't the U.S. federation nominate you?" he asked.
"They're like everyone else," I said. "They fear the negative reaction down the road from Blatter and FIFA."
Then he explained his FA's position, one that was influenced not just by Blatter but also by UEFA president Michel Platini of France. "Tomorrow at the UEFA Congress, Blatter will announce that he will not run in 2015," he said. "Platini wants to run in 2015, so Platini will ask all the big European nations to support Blatter this year. We don't like Blatter that much, but now we will owe Platini as well."
The problem, he explained, was that nominating a candidate for FIFA president would be a public declaration–subject to negative blowback from Blatter and Platini–while the actual vote on June 1 is a secret ballot. "We would be more likely to vote for you in the election than to nominate you," he told me. "Nominating you is impossible."
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I didn't know whether to pump my fist or hang my head in despair. On the one hand, a top official from a World Cup-winning FA had taken me seriously enough to schedule a meeting, had even gone so far as to tell me he'd consider voting for me if I was able to gain a nomination. On the other hand, it was possible (likely?) that he was just being nice about his vote consideration, and the news he delivered showed exactly how difficult it would be to crack the inner circle and persuade an FA to nominate me.
I kept trying to secure that nomination right up until the last day before the deadline. I owed that to the thousands of soccer fans around the world who had put their trust in me as the People's Candidate, who had expressed their support on Twitter and Facebook over the past six weeks. They came from dozens of countries, making clear that the simple message of cleaning up FIFA resonated around the globe. It was a rollicking adventure, one that I'll never forget. By the time it was over, I had contacted some 150 national federations and had received responses from around 30 FAs, from countries big (Australia, the U.S.) and small (Iceland, Dominica, FYR Macedonia) and somewhere in between (Sweden, Chile, Ireland, Israel).
Many of them voiced the same message I heard in that Paris hotel lobby: We don't really like the status quo, but nominating you is impossible. Nobody had the courage to do it. The prevailing mood was fear.
"Did anyone think you were joking or that you were a madman?" – interview question from the Shanghai Morning Post
I decided to run for FIFA president one night in January. Wherever I go around the world covering soccer, the fans complain about Blatter and FIFA, saying the organization isn't clean, that the two FIFA executive committee members suspended for trying to sell their World Cup votes last year might well be the tip of a rotten iceberg. If that was the case, I found it strange that Blatter had no challenger in the 2007 FIFA election and none in January 2011 either. It's one thing to complain about FIFA, but it's another to actually do something. So one night the idea came: Can anyone run for FIFA president? Could I?
I bolted out of bed, turned on my laptop and spent the next three hours doing research. On FIFA's website, I learned that anyone can announce their candidacy for FIFA president; you just have to be nominated by one of the world's federations. I studied the writer Norman Mailer's campaign for mayor of New York City in 1969, noting his efforts to show that he was unconventional and somewhat satirical but still serious about enacting major reforms. (Mailer ended up getting 41,000 votes.) And I read up on the history of FIFA's eight presidents, three of whom had worked at one point as sports journalists. I brought up the idea with my editors at Sports Illustrated, and they told me to go for it.
After showing them the column announcing my candidacy, I visited SI's main office in New York, where we spent most of a day filming my campaign video with SI's video maestro, Ian Orefice. The production values were disarmingly high (HD video, quality background score and voiceover), and Ian came up with the idea to have me go out on the streets to shake hands with the masses across from Radio City Music Hall.
I had to take a deep breath on that one, but you'd be surprised how many people will stop and talk to you if they see a guy with a video camera. We had a blast, and Ian edited the video to strike a good balance between humor (a powerful tool) and the real changes I was proposing for FIFA.
We launched the campaign announcement and video publicly on Feb. 17 in the magazine, on SI.com and on my Twitter and Facebook pages. I expected it would be noticed, but I had no idea it would spread globally with such speed and volume. Social media is a remarkable thing. On the first day, the campaign was endorsed on Twitter by NBA star Steve Nash, NFL receiver Chad Ochocinco, comedian Drew Carey and Saturday Night Live's Seth Meyers. Spanish soccer player Xabi Alonso sent a message of good luck. Media from around the world contacted SI to set up interviews, and I did video hits for CNN, Bloomberg TV and Reuters, among others.
The message found an audience. My main campaign promises were simple enough: As president I would do a WikiLeaks on FIFA, releasing every internal document to the public so we could find out how clean or unclean FIFA really is. I would push for term limits to prevent any FIFA president from serving more than two four-year terms. I would support (with the approval of the IFAB) the introduction of video-replay technology for all close calls on the goal line. And I would name a woman as FIFA's general secretary, the organization's most powerful appointed position, to change the old-boy network culture that will continue to thrive as long as all 24 members of the FIFA executive committee are men.
The response was overwhelmingly positive. Some 3,000 people started following my Facebook campaign page, while another 3,000 signed a Twitter petition started by a college student in Minnesota. Over the past six weeks I did more than 60 interviews with media outlets in Brazil, Argentina, Russia, Malaysia, Canada, the U.S., England, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Chile, Nigeria, South Africa, France, Germany, Switzerland, China, Australia and New Zealand.
Nearly all the interviews started the same way, by asking if the campaign was a joke. (Only the Chinese asked if people thought I was a madman, which was an inspired question.) I reminded them that I wrote in the second sentence of my campaign announcement that I wasn't kidding, but I also knew I would have to reinforce that with my actions by doing everything I could (including traveling to Paris) to seek an official nomination.
I was also well aware that cynics might view my candidacy as an effort simply to draw publicity for myself, so I made sure to steer interviews as much as possible toward my message and limited my Twitter posts on the campaign to no more than two per day.
At one point my wife asked me: "Do I have to think about moving to Switzerland?" (FIFA's headquarters are in Zürich.) I told her to come back to me in a few weeks, but I wasn't naive. My chances of beating Blatter were minuscule, but I thought it might just be possible to land a nomination. With all the countries and all the fans who were dissatisfied with Blatter, there had to be one FA out of 208 that would have the guts to nominate me, right?
If FIFA were truly a representative democracy, I'm convinced that not only would I have been nominated, but I also would have beaten Blatter and Bin Hammam in a landslide on election day. In a survey of readers, SI.com asked who they would vote for if given the chance. I got 95% of the vote, Bin Hammam had 3% and Blatter had 2%. FIFA and the world's FAs talk a good game about the importance of the fans, but when it comes to the politics of the sport, the fans just don't matter. Not one bit.
And that's a shame. Interacting with the world's supporters was my favorite part of running for FIFA president, and they did some amazing things. On the opening night of MLS, a D.C. United fan hung a banner that read WAHL 4 FIFA PRES. And in early March I had no idea what was awaiting me when I spoke at the Las Vegas rally of the American Outlaws, the U.S. national team's largest supporters' group. One of the event's sponsors, an energy drink called Golazo, made dozens of campaign signs and buttons that read WAHL FIFA PRESIDENT. I was floored. After I gave my speech, the Outlaws and I taped a video message for Blatter out on The Strip.
Still, it was one thing to win support from the fans. Persuading the world's stuffy old soccer politicians to nominate me was another matter entirely, one that brought all sorts of people–and, let's be honest, some unusual characters–out of the woodwork.
The e-mail arrived in my general SI.com mailbox on March 2:
Dear Mr. G. Wahl,
We want to contact you with a FA!
2 smaller countries.
Want to back you up.
I have a healthy skepticism when it comes to people on the Internet who claim they can "hook you up," but as a journalist I was also curious about this F.T. García. (I have changed the name he gave me.) Even if he was a hoax, the mere fact that someone was contacting me in such a manner revealed something about the murkiness of FIFA politics.
So I called him on the European cell number he gave me. "FTG," as he came to call himself, became a constant correspondent on e-mail and the phone, contacting me several times on some days. No matter how often I asked him to explain who he was and what he did, he said he didn't want to do so. But he claimed to have ties to various figures who themselves had ties to the powerful men in FAs who (supposedly) would nominate me. A typical e-mail from FTG was this one:
Hello Mr. Grant,
1) I have contacted the Danish Lawyer who will call his friend at FA Denmark for meeting.
2) I contacted a personal friend who has close ties to Luxembourg FA. He will call me back or e-mail about meeting.
3) I contacted Dutch/Suriname Agent Mr. Xxxx Xxxxx. He has ties to Suriname FA.
4) Contacted Danish agent Mr. Xxxxx Xxxxx also for Danish FA.
When do you want to come to Paris, France?
Meetings at Embassy?
You have a Lawyer ,etc.?
I played along with FTG (to an extent), but I made sure to keep plenty of my own irons in the fire. By then, I knew I would have to persuade a federation other than U.S. Soccer to nominate me. The USSF, which has supported Blatter along with the other CONCACAF nations over the years, was bitterly disappointed by losing out to Qatar in the bid to host World Cup 2022–Blatter is thought to have voted for the U.S. vs. Qatar, for what it's worth–but USSF president Sunil Gulati told me from the start that he had decided not to nominate anyone.
That left me using the means at my disposal to try to hustle some contacts inside the world's FAs. If I knew journalists in a particular country, I would e-mail them and ask if they had any contact information for their FA president. In some cases, I already knew members of various FAs' PR staffs and contacted them. And for others I simply went onto the country pages on the FIFA website, which included general e-mail addresses for all of the world's federations.
You could learn some intriguing things on these pages. Burundi, for example, has a female FA president, Lydia Nsekera. (I promised to consider her for FIFA general secretary in my letter, but she still failed to reply.) Gambia's FA president may or may not be a seedy character, but he is most certainly Seedy: a guy named Seedy Kinteh, to be exact. He didn't answer either.
Indeed, most of my 120 or so e-mails to these general FA addresses disappeared into the abyss. For days I kept getting "Failure Notice" bounce-back messages from the official FIFA mailbox of the Bermuda FA. ("Failure Notice" now seems like a good title for the state of my campaign.) The Seychelles FA mailbox was full, but the automatic reply message ("Undeliverable") was probably an accurate description of its nomination. The general secretary of the Mauritania FA, Massa Diarra, replied to my letter, even if he just wanted it in French. Dominica FA head Patrick John responded to let me know his nation would be supporting Blatter. And Iceland FA president Geir Thorsteinsson called and asked for more information before eventually telling me his board had decided against nominating me. At least he denied me in an extremely polite way.
Another FA that replied was Finland, but on that one I screwed up royally. In most letters, I would write a sentence or two unique to that country before launching into the stump speech about my candidacy. But with Finland I accidentally forgot to take out this line from my letter to Denmark: "I think it would be great for Denmark–the least corrupt country in the world according to Transparency International–to nominate me after Blatter was nominated by the FA of Somalia (the most corrupt country in the world)." After a friendly executive assistant forwarded the e-mail to the Finnish FA heads, I discovered my error and apologized profusely. "No worries," she wrote back. "These things happen, and I want to think myself that Finland is on the same level as Denmark when it comes to corruption, despite the latest betting fraud case here." The Finns are nice people, but they still didn't want to nominate me.
Scandinavia in general was a harder sell than I expected. While I was hoping the region's reputation for transparent government might attract nomination interest, my unconventional candidacy seemed to be frowned upon by the humorless in some quarters. Lennart Johansson, 81, the Swedish former UEFA president, told Fotbollskanalen.se I was "totally unknown," "not a serious candidate" and that "the U.S. is not a superpower in football," as if that mattered. He then presumably growled, "Get off of my yard!"
England, for its part, never engaged me seriously, despite its lingering anger over receiving only two votes in an embarrassing first-round exit in the vote to host World Cup 2018. I had contact with a few England officials who said they forwarded my information to FA Chairman David Bernstein and general secretary Alex Horne, but I never heard from either of the two men directly.
All the same, I did enjoy meeting some good people over the past six weeks. Early on, I had a productive hour-long Skype conversation with Oliver Fowler, a Barcelona-based British journalist who started ChangeFIFA, an organization dedicated to reforming world soccer governance. Fowler connected me to David Larkin, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer who is also part of ChangeFIFA. In late February they informed me they were in discussions with Chilean Elías Figueroa, the former three-time South American player of the year, about potentially running for FIFA president on a reform platform. Figueroa was interested. Would I be interested in working with him? I said I'd be happy to talk to Figueroa, and if our ideas were similar and he was able to get a nomination, I would endorse him and drop out of the race.
Unfortunately, though, Figueroa was never able to land his own nomination. If you're wondering how impenetrable and fear-inducing FIFA's ruling hierarchy is, imagine this: The Chilean FA refused to nominate the greatest player in its nation's history. Think about that for a second. If Figueroa couldn't do it, it shouldn't be surprising that I couldn't either.
Yet I kept trying until the deadline. Most of it was done on my own. But the mystery man F.T. García was contacting me nearly every day, sending e-mails like this one:
Georgia? It's an Obscure Country ... anti Russia!
Their ex FA president is current owner of Dutch club Vitesse.
My contact can approach him easy.
Your thoughts please?
FTG was even loopier over the phone. In one conversation on March 11, he "informed" me that:
• The Morocco FA wanted to meet me at their embassy in Paris. (This never happened, and I never got any indication it was true.)
• He was setting up meetings with the Georgia FA. (This never happened either.)
• Pro-Blatter forces thought I was a threat using social media and were starting a "campaign" against me in Europe. (FTG's credibility was really starting to erode here.)
• I might have to cast a wider net. "You have to understand the countries, the culture of paranoia," FTG said. "Maybe a smaller country can nominate you, like Brunei or Tonga. But maybe they ask for money. That's the name of the game."
On March 14, tiring of FTG's conspiracy theories, I laid it on the line to him: For a week he had been promising contacts with several FAs, but I had yet to hear from anyone other than him, and he was still refusing to explain anything about who he was. He was wasting my time, I told him, and I was done talking to him unless he provided some evidence to back up his claims–like, say, real people. "You keep telling me about hooking me up with FAs," I said, "but I do a better job of that on my own than you do!"
That probably wasn't very nice, but it was true. At that point he had about as much credibility with me as a Nigerian e-mail scammer. I thought it would probably be our last conversation, but two days later FTG rang me in the morning. "You will start getting calls from FAs in the next 30 minutes," he said. Rolling my eyes, I said: "O.K. I'll keep an eye out for them!"
And then the craziest thing happened. I started getting calls. One of them came from the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. The secretary on the line (she had a Macedonia country code) gave me her name and the cell number for general secretary Igor Klimper, who she said wanted to meet me the following Monday in Paris. A few minutes later I got a call from a top official with a World Cup-winning European FA. He too wanted to meet me in Paris and asked me to send him an e-mail. He replied a few minutes later from a legitimate e-mail account from his FA. And if I needed any further confirmation that he was the real thing, I got it when I checked the caller ID number on my phone. It matched perfectly with the number that FIFA's website listed for his nation's FA headquarters.
Suddenly, amazingly, F.T. García had some credibility, even if he still wouldn't tell me who he was.
"Grant Wahl, an American journalist, has some good ideas but no chance at all." – The Economist
My cell phone rang in Paris on the afternoon of March 21. The voice on the other end was a familiar one: FTG, the mystery man. "You're wearing a nice striped suit today, Mr. Grant," he said.
My brow furrowed. I had yet to see the man in the flesh. This was starting to feel like a poor man's Jason Bourne movie. "Are you here at the UEFA hotel in Paris?" I asked.
"I'm in Paris. We can meet."
"Today or tomorrow?"
"Today is better. Call me in 10 minutes."
FTG didn't want to meet in the lobby of the UEFA hotel–that paranoia again–so he asked to rendezvous at a pharmacy down the street. When I finally saw the guy, he looked a lot like your typical middle manager from Syracuse. Wearing a navy blazer and a shiny black tie, FTG carried a blue backpack that made him appear as though he had just left school for the day. He was in his 40s, slightly overweight and nervous in his mannerisms. His eyes were bloodshot. FTG thought we were being watched and asked to duck into a brasserie next to the pharmacy.
I won't bore you with the details of our conversation, not that one or the one the next day that took place–cliché alert!–on a park bench near the Champs Elysees. Suffice it to say, F.T. García never explained who he was or why he was spending his time and money to speak to me. He never brought much to the table, really, but just enough to keep me intrigued. Ultimately, FTG wasn't fascinating for what he accomplished. He was fascinating because someone like him existed–a peripheral figure in the sprawling FIFA demimonde who knew a guy who knew a guy (or maybe not). Even the ties that he did have weren't close. The Macedonian general secretary, Igor Klimper? He answered my calls just once in Paris, said he'd ring me in an hour and never did. As for the ex-president of the Georgia FA, his secretary told me he was now busy–for the next month.
That said, my trip to Paris wasn't a complete waste of time. I had my meeting with the official from the World Cup-winning FA. I interviewed Bin Hammam for a story. I got interviewed by Le Monde and by the investigative reporter Andrew Jennings for an upcoming BBC special on FIFA.
And I learned an important truth: No matter how much support you may have from the world's fans, an outsider candidate is doomed to fail in the world of FIFA politics, where the old men in the navy suits have all the power. That outsider candidate could be Kofi Annan or Bill Clinton or George Weah, but even if they ran they could not win, nor might they even be nominated. Remember, public opinion does not matter in FIFA election campaigns. The greatest player in Chile's history, a man with political experience and popular acclaim, could not get nominated by the Chilean federation.
And so we're left today with two nominated candidates: Sepp Blatter and Mohamed bin Hammam, two longtime FIFA insiders, two men who may disagree on small points but are in perfect lockstep on the most important topic of the day. Is FIFA corrupt? Both Blatter and Bin Hammam say they are certain that it is not. How can anyone be certain of that? And if they are certain, they should welcome a full and independent investigation of FIFA from top to bottom, one that would address the tarnished reputation that the organization has acquired.
Even though I failed to secure a nomination, the message I wanted to send got out. Ordinary fans in countries around the world talked a little bit more about the absurdities of FIFA's electoral process. They asked why their voices don't matter, why so few people challenge the unpopular status quo, and why an organization that purports to be a great democracy has so many one-candidate elections at its various levels. They asked why the leaders of FIFA don't make common-sense reforms that would give the world's greatest sport the clean and respected administration it deserves.
As for me, I'm done with being a candidate in soccer elections, at least for the next few decades. Running for office closer to home would conflict too much with my journalism and book writing, and those are the things I do best. But I'll never forget the positive response from the sport's fans, near and far, who wanted to see real change in FIFA. Thank you for everything, and I'll see you at the games.