11 January ~ Whisper it very, very carefully, but there may be change in the air at FIFA. The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) last week voted to oust Sepp Blatter's long-time opponent – South Korean Chung Mong-joon – and elected in his place a man almost half his age, the Blatter-endorsed Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein of Jordan. And why is that good news? Because in an early interview the prince outlined his views on women's football, one of his electoral platforms: "I think enhancing [women's football] is… a great socio-economic tool to empower them and I want to work very hard on that, and create professional leagues for women in Asia, and hopefully get more places at the World Cup for women's football."
As Michel Platini would doubtless tell the prince, having a Utopian vision for the future of football is one thing, but being able to realise it once you're in a position of power is something else indeed. Nonetheless, this one sentence represents a more progressive agenda than anything uttered by the entire FIFA Executive Committee over the past decade. Football as a socio-economic tool of empowerment for the historically oppressed? Wow, come and join the struggle, comrade!
Perhaps some of his new colleagues, even the president himself, have already taken Prince Ali to one side and explained to the young man that, ahem, he wasn't voted in just to go around trying to change the world. Good grief, no. For the received wisdom is that the prince was Blatter's stooge – voted in by the Arab nations as a thank you for the Qatar World Cup, and to oust Chung and prevent him from challenging for the FIFA presidency, up for grabs this June 1. It's hard to refute this theory given that there's nothing a dull-minded demagogue like Blatter loves more than to run unopposed, and to act with consequent autocracy.
Indeed, the desire of Zürich's current gnomish incumbent to dispense with an election is understandable when you consider that a serious challenger would present a real threat to such an intellectually stunted leader now that everyone's on the watch for shifty gifts of cash-filled brown envelopes. Chung's loss, however, does not mean that Blatter's assured of another four-year term of office. AFC president Mohamed Bin Hammam was re-elected to a third term last week (unopposed, of course), and has not ruled out a challenge to Blatter for the top job this summer. Bin Hammam reportedly favoured Chung's re-election over Prince Ali, implying that he too would like to curb the reign of corruption, cronyism and desperately poor ideas that has marked Blatter's abysmal tenure and dragged FIFA's reputation to an all-time low.
Prince Ali ran not only on a platform to promote women's football, but also promised to heed the needs of football associations in the poorer Asian countries, and to spend more time engaged with the game's grass-roots than with FIFA politics. It may be unlikely at this point that he'll make a stance on Qatar's obnoxious criminalisation of homosexuality (although it's not illegal in Jordan, it's not exactly encouraged either), and he may find widespread regional resistance to the idea of empowering women. And it could be that he cannot avoid the internal intrigues of a bloated administrative parasite like FIFA, and so ends up, like many of his fellow ExCo members, merely paying lip service to the idea of football as "more than a game".
Nonetheless, in the context of football politics his words are such an unexpected breath of fresh thinking that we can only wish him the best of luck. It's easy to be cynical when it comes to FIFA, but the prince insists that he wants to be held to account for the promises he made on his electoral campaign. That won't sit well with Blatter, who on the Sunday of the same week had declared the forming of a FIFA anti-corruption committee, only to have risibly backtracked by the Friday. With any luck, he'll find that his young, idealistic protégé is not the pliable rube that he was anticipating. And there's nothing FIFA needs more than young visionaries with fresh initiatives to oust the gerontocracy that has done so much to discredit and dishonour the world's game and the way that it's run. Ian Plenderleith worldcuphumanrights.blogspot.com