LIFE IS FULL of litmus tests. At last year's World Cup, the 28 members of FIFA's executive committee, including president Sepp Blatter, received a gift bag containing a Parmigiani Fleurier watch worth $26,000. FIFA rules demand that gifts of such value be returned, but London's Sunday Times reported that only three ExCo members did so on their own: the U.S.'s Sunil Gulati, Australia's Moya Dodd and Jordan's Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein. (The others eventually gave theirs back as well.)
It was a story worth remembering last week when Prince Ali, 39, announced he was running against Blatter for the FIFA presidency, pledging to clean up an organization dogged by corruption charges, machine politics and a notoriously entrenched culture of gift-giving and five-star, all-expenses-paid boondoggles. "The world's game deserves a world-class governing body—a service organisation and a model of ethics, transparency and good governance," Prince Ali wrote on Twitter.
FIFA has a problem. The bid process for the 2018 and '22 World Cup hosting rights—won by Russia and Qatar, respectively, in 2010—released a stench so strong that even Blatter had to acknowledge the need for reform. But the investigation commissioned by FIFA found no smoking guns hot enough to justify revoking those hosting rights, and it devolved into farce when the lead investigator, former U.S. Attorney Michael Garcia, resigned last month after saying that FIFA's public summary of his report misrepresented his findings. Blatter, the 78-year-old Swiss running for his fifth term, is fond of declaring that FIFA's reform process is complete, neglecting one widely held belief: It won't be until he's out the door.
January 26, 2015
I ran for president four years ago with a smile and a clean-up platform and drew 95% of the votes in an online poll, fully realizing that a potted plant would probably get just as much fan support against Blatter. But none of the world's soccer federations were willing to nominate me, and FIFA changed the rules so that candidates now have to be an active administrator or participant to run for FIFA president. With a true outside candidate—like, say, Kofi Annan—unable to run, the best option on the table is Prince Ali. (The candidacy of former French winger David Ginola, announced last week, was hard to take seriously since he's being paid almost $400,000 to run by a bookmaker known for publicity stunts.)
The Princeton-educated Prince Ali has been untouched by allegations of impropriety since becoming the Jordanian federation president in 1999 and a FIFA VP in 2011. He has been the top proponent of women's soccer in the Middle East, leading the campaign to lift the ban on female Islamic players' wearing head scarves in competition and bringing the Under-17 Women's World Cup to Jordan next year. And he has been one of the few FIFA administrators willing to challenge Blatter publicly. Prince Ali promised his stewardship of FIFA would bring the focus "away from administrative controversy and back to sport."
Unfortunately, he has almost no chance to win. Most of the voters (the world's national federation heads) don't want reform. Under Blatter, FIFA generated $2 billion in profits from World Cup 2014 and has $1.5 billion in reserves, with millions going out to the world's federations for soccer "development" (read: patronage). The impetus for change would have to come from sponsors—including U.S. companies such as Coca-Cola and McDonald's—but none have yet pulled their money.
Prince Ali will likely have the support of reform-minded federations in Europe, Asia and perhaps North America—U.S. Soccer, which has voted for Blatter in the past, may consider Prince Ali this time—but the overall numbers are clearly in Blatter's favor. And that tells you all you need to know about FIFA, circa 2015.
Votes for Blatter in the last four FIFA elections
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]