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Old 21st October 2015, 12:43   #1
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Default Fifa needs change, but this democracy-crushing choice is grim

Fifa needs change, but this democracy-crushing choice is grim

Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa says he has been urged to stand for Fifa’s presidency by a number of Fifa members. Shame on every one of them

Marina Hyde
The Guardian
Wednesday 21 October 2015 12.03 BST

In any sane world, the spectacle of a man from one of Earth’s most oppressive regimes pontificating about a presidential election would be regarded as so obviously absurd as to be self-satirising. And yet, as hardly needs explaining, Fifa is not a sane world. Never mind Kansas, Toto – I don’t think we’re even in Oz anymore. Is there a world beyond even the world that’s through the looking glass, a place where the Red Queen and Humpty Dumpty actually seem quite rational compared to some monstrous arsehole from the Bahraini royal family presenting himself as a change candidate?

The monstrous arsehole in question is Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, whose ascent to football primacy has been a classic riches-to-riches story. Wondering what he might have achieved had he not been held back by his connections is one for another day. He can only play it as it lays, and Sheikh Salman currently declares himself under increasingly heavy pressure to stand as a candidate in Fifa’s presidential election.

According to his good self, he is being urged to stand “by a growing number of senior football administrators, Fifa members and personalities of public life”. And shame on all of them – but we’ll come to that shortly.

One suspects Sheikh Salman will find it difficult not to bow to these overwhelming pressures – though it must be said his family do possess backbone. Their resistance to the idea of greater political freedom within their own country has been particularly determined, with Bahrain’s Arab Spring crushed in ways inventive even by the standards of some of their ghastliest neighbours. Mass incarceration, torture, denial of medical care … Up the reds! As for Salman himself, he is personally suspected by various human rights groups of identifying pro-democracy athletes – including footballers – who were then imprisoned and tortured. He denies this.

That a royal from such a country should be the momentum candidate in the world governing body’s election is a disgrace heaped upon a disgrace, and showcases Fifa’s endless capacity to find hidden basements to the barrel it is always scraping.

It was long remarkable that stewardship of a sport – which is to say, a meritocracy – had been ceded to a kleptocracy. But now that balloon has gone up, what would be even more remarkable would be to replace that kleptocracy with a president selected from an autocracy. It must be said that Sheikh Salman is not the only candidate from an authoritarian state on offer in the Fifa election: Prince Ali of Jordan is also available for consideration. But should Sheikh Salman declare his candidacy, his established power player status as president of the Asian Football Confederation would likely guarantee him far more support.

Indeed, he would only be contemplating a run had he received strong private assurances of backing from Europe, and believed he had a good chance of the same from Africa. If he has received those assurances, as is thought, then whoever gave them has simply indefensible ideas about what sort of people should be empowered outside of the countries on which their families have a stranglehold. Having had a little think about it, as a European, I would literally prefer Michel Platini over Sheikh Salman. It’s a hilariously grim choice, but on balance I care more about democracy and human rights than even alleged bribery.

Forgive the repetition of a point, but it ought to be a basic standard that princely candidates from brutal non-democracies need not apply. And I don’t mean to be fussy, but can Fifa at least rule out emissaries from countries that TORTURE FOOTBALLERS? Where is Europe’s self-respect? Is this truly where they want to be, coalescing behind a royal placeman from a country which is consistently ranked near the very bottom of any democratic index, and getting worse on annual trends? But hey – last year Bahrain beat Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Syria, so they do at least have bragging rights in those always hard-fought Middle East derbies.

Of course, there is little doubt that Fifa’s comfort zone is near the south pole of these lists. Of the 23 executive committee members not provisionally banned at present, six – more than a quarter – hail from authoritarian regimes, including the acting president, Cameroon’s Issa Hayatou (the others are drawn from Burundi, Bahrain, Egypt, Russia and the Democratic Republic of Congo).

It has become increasingly clear over recent years that everything Fifa does is better served by its doing it away from the inconvenient restraints of democracy. It was the governing body’s erstwhile general secretary Jérôme Valcke – now suspended and under criminal investigation – who openly declared this fact a couple of years ago, explaining that “less democracy is sometimes better for organising a World Cup”.

Though he was cruelly robbed of a decent amount of time in his post, the suspicion is that Sepp Blatter would ultimately have liked to realise his dream of a slimmed-down, streamlined Exco that comprised members from only North Korea, Syria, Chad, Russia, Iran, China, and the emerging market that is Islamic State – as well as one placeman criminal from Europe.

Still, it wasn’t to be, and Fifa’s “change” election will be upon us in February. Or will it? Anyone with football clout in Europe, whose countries tend to feature near the very top of those democratic indexes, ought to consider the value of such things when they come to take the decision that is supposed to begin the work of remaking Fifa. I’m afraid that in the case of Sheikh Salman, a change is not even as good as arrest.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Martin Luther King
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