Mailbag: Which candidate can win FIFA's election? Vela to MLS? - Sports Illustrated

Mailbag: Realistic FIFA election winners; 2016 Copa America; MLS

Which of the eight candidates can realistically win FIFA's presidential election? Grant Wahl answers that and more in his latest mailbag.
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And so, at long last, we have our final candidates to replace Sepp Blatter as FIFA president in next February’s election. On Monday, I posted a straightforward informational tweet with their names. The list of names got some traction in the media. So first off: Go ahead and giggle. It’s fine. Yes, these guys sound like either:

1) the cast of Dirk Diggler’s next porn video, 

2) a group of emerging-star rappers, or

3) the denizens of the Mos Eisley bar in Star Wars. In fact, there’s a lot about FIFA that sounds like the Star Wars movies, including pantomime villains, talk of “federations” and “confederations,” and a meeting place for the “executive committee” that looks like it’s straight out of the Death Star.

Meet the candidates: The eight vying to become FIFA president

But once you’re done laughing, it’s worth remembering: This election is kind of important for the future of global soccer. FIFA is in freefall as a result of the U.S. government’s ongoing investigation into worldwide soccer corruption, which has so far produced a slew of arrests, Sepp Blatter’s slow-motion resignation, a 47-count indictment and the guilty pleas of four people. U.S. attorney general Loretta Lynch says more arrests are on the way.

Here are a couple quick reactions when you see this group:

Where are the women?

Not a single female is in the running, and for an organization that claims to be taking women more seriously than in the past, the facts speak louder than the rhetoric. The U.S.’s Julie Foudy, a World Cup winner and former president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, would be a better candidate than any of these men.

They’re all insiders from global soccer politics 

And that’s literally by design. After the last FIFA presidential election in 2011, FIFA changed the rules so that true outsider candidates can’t run. You now have to have been “active in soccer” in either governance or playing the game professionally for at least two of the past five years. But considering that U.S. prosecutors have called out FIFA’s culture of corruption, an obvious step in starting over with a new FIFA would be a respected president from outside that culture, whether it’s Kofi Annan or Christine Lagarde or Bill Clinton.

A former great player like Brazil’s Zico couldn’t get nominated

On the one hand, Zico’s inability to secure the required five nominations from FIFA members speaks well of his bonafides: He doesn’t play the usual FIFA game. But it also shows the FIFA culture hasn’t really changed much.

Since this is a Mailbag column, reader @Darthchris4 has a useful question: “Are there any options for FIFA president who aren’t obviously corrupt?” And @DanielKarell asks: “Who do you expect U.S. Soccer to back in the upcoming FIFA elections?”

So let’s break it down. Of the eight candidates, three have zero chance to win: Musa Bility, the Liberian FA president; Jérôme Champagne, the Frenchman who brags about his time as Blatter’s acolyte; and David Nakhid, the well-meaning Trinidadian who once played in MLS for New England.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Nakhid was ruled ineligible by FIFA on Wednesday, as one of his required five nominating FAs apparently backed another candidate as well, which is against FIFA rules.]

That leaves five guys who can win this thing (which leaves me thinking about a Five Guys grilled-cheese sandwich, but I digress):

Prince Ali. A member of the Jordanian royal family, Prince Ali ran against Blatter in May’s scheduled election and got 73 votes to Blatter’s 133. That in itself gives Prince Ali some credibility. So does his work to increase the access of girls and women in the Middle East to soccer through his support of allowing the hijab to be worn by players. (Through his efforts, Jordan will host the Under-17 Women’s World Cup next year.)

Prince Ali has never been accused of corruption (no small thing), and at World Cup 2014 he was one of just three FIFA Executive Committee members who returned an expensive watch gift that violated FIFA rules without having to be told to do so. U.S. Soccer supported Prince Ali in May, though it has yet to announce its endorsement this time around. Biggest downside: Prince Ali is part of a Jordanian government/ruling family that, while a U.S. ally, isn’t exactly a bastion of democracy. But is he electable? In the end, Prince Ali doesn’t figure to get the most votes from Asia, Africa or Europe.

Tokyo Sexwale. Yes, he has a great name, even if South Africans tell me his last name is pronounced “se-KWAH-leh.” (Tokyo comes from his youthful interest in karate.) But keep in mind: Sexwale was imprisoned on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela, is probably the most charismatic speaker of this bunch and could become FIFA’s first black president at a time when racism is still remarkably common in world soccer. Downsides? Sexwale was part of the group that organized World Cup 2010 in South Africa, which U.S. investigators say paid a $10 million bribe to FIFA voters to help get the hosting rights. Is he electable? Maybe. He should get a lot of the votes from Africa, which has 54 of them, and survive deeper into election day.

Sheikh Salman. The current president of the Asian soccer confederation is also a member of Bahrain’s ruling family, which has been accused of torturing pro-democracy demonstrators, including top soccer players, in 2011, as this well-done ESPN piece by Jeremy Schaap documents. Sheikh Salman has denied those allegations, but his response has hardly been convincing. Is this the guy you want running the “new” FIFA? Well, he’s certainly one of the favorites to win here, and should get most (if not all) of Asia’s 46 votes. Sheikh Salman will provide an early test of the newly installed “integrity checks” in FIFA. Will he pass? We’ll see soon.

Michel Platini. The former world soccer superstar has gone on to become the UEFA president, and he was the favorite to win this election until recent revelations that he accepted a shady-sounding, undocumented $2 million payment from Blatter in 2011—nine years after he performed the work for FIFA and soon before he announced he wouldn’t run against Blatter in the 2011 FIFA election. Platini is now suspended as a result, though he may still have a chance to stand for this election if he’s cleared of wrongdoing. While UEFA has been extremely profitable under Platini’s watch, it’s worth remembering: This guy voted for Qatar in the summer as the host of World Cup 2022.

Gianni Infantino. The Italian general secretary of UEFA was a late addition to the race, and the most likely reason he’s here is to represent Europe’s interests if Platini isn’t cleared to run. (If Platini is eligible to stand, look for Infantino to drop out.) To his benefit, Infantino has also not been accused of anything corrupt yet. Europe has 53 votes in this election, and if he is involved he has a chance to win.

My sense is U.S. Soccer will support Prince Ali at first, but if Ali doesn’t survive the round-by-round cuts (and it’s likely he won’t), then the U.S. would switch to the European candidate. We also have four months until election day, and the way these things tend to go, new revelations of skullduggery will come out and remove some of the candidates from the process.

Onto the rest of your questions:

What are the chances that FIFPro will stage a protest/boycott/ultimatum re: Salman candidacy/election?


I think there’s a pretty good chance that could happen. FIFPro, the global players union, has been very vocal lately, especially after the hiring of former TV broadcaster Andrew Orsatti as its director of communications. Being connected to the torture of soccer players isn’t something you want from the FIFA president, to put it mildly.

Seems like DeAndre Yedlin is earning a spot in the XI at Sunderland. This bodes well for his future at Tottenham or elsewhere, right?


It’s early still, but the news for Yedlin has been good on his loan to Sunderland. He made his third straight start over the weekend and played 90 minutes at right back in a big 3-0 rivarly-game win over Newcastle. There were plenty of concerns about Yedlin after he featured so little for Spurs last season, but right now he’s doing what it takes to get noticed and get more playing time. Good for him.

The first three managers fired in EPL were U.S.-owned clubs. Coincidence or pattern/trend?


For me it’s a coincidence. I think U.S. owners in the Premier League have tended to be more measured than some of their counterparts when it comes to firing managers. Nor would I say that any of those three firings (Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool, Dick Advocaat at Sunderland and Tim Sherwood at Aston Villa) were overly hasty.

In what ways do you think the NFL's free streaming of Sunday's game on Yahoo could be relevant to MLS?


MLS’s inaugural Decision Day a rousing success as drama abounds

Well, one of the big stories of 2015 in MLS has been the increased distribution of MLS games to TV channels internationally around the world. Free viewing online internationally could be really important for MLS as it signs more big names globally. The league still has a ways to go, though, and when you look at the average audience for Sunday’s NFL game the numbers weren’t really that high compared to TV broadcasts.

If José Mourinho gets sacked who comes in?


As bad as things have gotten at Stamford Bridge, it sounds like Mourinho won’t be getting fired in the next couple weeks unless something crazy happens. If he does leave midseason, then a caretaker is likely, and Carlo Ancelotti doesn’t sound like a caretaker. The best they could get right now in a temporary role might be another go-round with GuusHiddink.

Toronto FC, successful season or not? Same number of losses as last season, highest payroll, poor defensively, no home playoff game.


MLS Playoff Power Rankings: Who is most likely to win 2015 MLS Cup?

If Toronto loses in the knockout-game playoff at Montreal on Thursday, the season would have to be considered a disappointment. While it’s a step forward to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in the club’s nine seasons, TFC only barely squeaked in by finishing sixth in the East, which wouldn’t have gotten the Reds in last year. And it’s hardly like the East was a murderer’s row with two expansion teams plus Chicago and Philadelphia this season.

In 1996, how likely was it that MLS would make it to 20 seasons?


There was certainly a lot of suspicion that a pro soccer league in the U.S. would be able to last that long. But MLS did have something going for it: Some fabulously wealthy owners who wouldn’t pull the plug after a few years of losing money. What’s more, nobody in 1996 would have suspected that Phil Anschutz, the new-to-soccer owner of the Colorado Rapids, would eventually dig deep and save the league by owning six of its teams when MLS would have gone under otherwise. Now, of course, Anschutz has gone back to owning one-and-a-half teams, all of the LA Galaxy and half of the Houston Dynamo. But he was needed at a critical time in the league’s history.

Is Carlos Vela heading to MLS in January?


Rodriguez puts faith in Hauptman, sets out to rebuild Chicago Fire

Vela himself said that he turned down strong interest from MLS over the summer, but I think the key here will be how Vela feels about his situation at Real Sociedad in January. He scored his first two league goals of the season on Sunday, and his fortunes may be on the up. Still, Mexican reports have suggested that Sociedad is willing to sell Vela to MLS. What would make the most sense to me is if Chicago hired Miguel Herrera as its new manager and brought in Vela as a marquee player to join him.

Besides it being a prestigious tournament what's the point for the Copa América Centenario?


U.S. Soccer, CONCACAF confirm USA will host Copa America Centenario

This is a special Copa América, so the winner won’t usurp Chile as the reigning South American champion or take its spot in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup.

In addition to commemorating the 100th anniversary of CONMEBOL, the tournament will make money for everyone involved and cause plenty of excitement as a tournament for fans to watch with some of the world’s top players.

It’ll also be another step in growth of awareness for soccer in the United States, and if it’s successful it will probably increase the calls for it to be a more regular tournament and to have more competition involving both CONMEBOL and CONCACAF, including at the club level.

Can the USMNT improve enough to look competent (at least not get steamrolled) in the Copa América?


I think so. There’s nothing like the pressure of not wanting to embarrass yourself in front of a giant audience. Plus, I don’t suspect the U.S.’s group will be crazy-hard, not least because the U.S. will be a seeded team at the draw as the tournament host.

What are your thoughts on new Philadelphia Union leadership?


Nick Sakiewicz era in Philadelphia over as Jay Sugarman seeks change

I really like the hiring of Earnie Stewart as Philadelphia’s new sporting director. He has good experience, having worked in a similar role in recent years for AZ Alkmaar, and he has knowledge of MLS, having played here for two years with D.C. United (and winning a championship). In other words, he won’t be frustrated by the restrictions in MLS, and he’ll bring some European ideas that could help the league here.

Overall, I’d like to see more influence of ideas from outside the U.S. when it comes to coaches and technical directors in MLS. Variety can be a good thing.

How futile is it to rank MLS internationally? How many people regularly watch games from Ukraine and Turkey to try and compare?


I know I’m not spending much time comparing MLS to those countries. That said, it’s kind of fun to see MLS’s new attendance record (average this year: 21,574) and note that it’s No. 7 among domestic leagues globally. MLS has been vocal about wanting to be one of the world’s top leagues by 2022, and while I’m highly skeptical, they’re clearly setting those benchmarks.

If the USWNT players hate field turf enough to sue FIFA over its use in the WWC, why do they keep playing friendlies on it?


President Obama honors USWNT at White House for winning World Cup

​The players didn’t want their once-every-four-years showpiece event to be played on artificial turf, and their rationale made sense. Canada 2015 provided a lot of indelible memories, but there will always be the memory of it taking place on fake turf. Quite reasonably, the players also understand the realities of today’s stadium situations, and for games that aren’t quadrennial showpiece events they’ve been willing to play on artificial turf.

They should be commended for that, not criticized.

Why does USWNT management appear strategic, organized and genuine, yet USMNT seems the opposite—but both are part of U.S. Soccer?


Ebbs and flows, and a bit of apples and oranges here. Also worth noting that many people’s opinions would have been the opposite as recently as June 10 of this year.

How many teams can MLS expand to and remain a "sane size"?


Honestly, I could envision a 36-team MLS with two 18-team leagues (MLS1 and MLS2) and a form of promotion and relegation between the two. 

Is it feasible MLS could one day have a 24-team league with a balanced schedule to end debate on West > East? Reference: RBNY Supporters Shield debate.


Top of the table again: New York Red Bulls win MLS Supporters' Shield

Definitely see MLS being a 24-team league at some point, but even then I doubt there would be a balanced schedule. You’d still see teams play more games within their own conference to cut down on travel and strengthen rivalries. I do think it’s a bit of a bummer that the Supporters' Shield has a better chance of going to the team in the lesser conference, but it doesn’t always happen that way. (See Seattle last year.)

Will MLS eventually have three conferences (West, Central, East) like in Major League Baseball?


I doubt it. There actually were three divisions in MLS in 2000 and ’01, but I don’t see MLS returning to that format.

They say the night is darkest before dawn. Is night darkest yet for the USMNT? Or can we go darker still?


Anything other than a win over St. Vincent and at least a tie at Trinidad & Tobago would make things pretty dark next month.