Update, 12:55 p.m., Feb. 26: Swiss soccer official Gianni Infantino has been elected FIFA's new president. Below is our explanation, posted yesterday, of why FIFA needed a new leader and what such a figure might mean for the organization's future (as well as information on Tokyo Sexwale and Jerome Champagne, rival presidential candidates who were, unfortunately, vanquished today).
Original post, Feb. 25: FIFA, the international criminal organization that runs the World Cup and other important soccer things, is holding elections in Zurich Friday to select a new president. One of the candidates is named Tokyo Sexwale and another one is named Jerome Champagne. Here's what you need to know about Tokyo Sexwale, Jerome Champagne, and the other less important aspects of the election.
Why does FIFA need a new president?
Previous president Sepp Blatter announced last June that he would be stepping down. Blatter's resignation announcement came days after United States and Swiss authorities collaborated to charge 14 top soccer officials and executives, many of whom were apprehended during a FIFA gathering in Zurich, with corruption and fraud crimes. (The U.S. accuses these individuals of conspiring to steal from FIFA via long-running bribery/kickback schemes that involved the use of the U.S. financial system.) More suspects were indicted in the case in December; a total of 41 people have been charged. Blatter hasn't been criminally charged but has close personal and professional connections to many of the people who have been—and moreoever he's been banned from FIFA for six years for a shady million-dollar payment that he made to another soccer official.
Is there anyone left in FIFA to run for its presidency?
As it happens, the payment that Blatter was banned for was made to French official (and former soccer star) Michel Platini, who was considered Blatter's possible heir—but Platini has been banned for six years himself. And Platini is obviously not the only high-ranking official whose potential candidacy was precluded by criminal charges or suspicion of misconduct. But that's where Tokyo Sexwale and Jerome Champagne enter the picture! They are among the five candidates standing for the job.
And yet I have bad news.
Oh no. Tell me the bad news.
Neither Sexwale (a South African) or Champagne (who's French, obviously) are expected to win the 207-nation election. The leading candidates are Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa (who is Bahraini) and Gianni Infantino (who is Swiss). Jordan's Prince Ali bin al-Hussein has an outside shot. (U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati just announced on Twitter that the U.S. will support Ali.)
That is a tragedy.
Hey, besides electing a new president, is FIFA doing anything to make itself, like, less totally and completely corrupt and terrible?
Maybe. FIFA is currently run by an executive committee made up of representatives from national soccer associations. Those representatives have often enriched themselves personally by soliciting bribes and kickbacks in the course of conducting FIFA business. The solution that's been proposed to this problem is to take day-to-day operations out of the direct control of the national representatives and give it instead to corporate-style hired professionals who would be monitored by an independent audit committee. The leading backer of the reform proposal is FIFA's interim president, Issa Hayatou, who himself is suspected of taking a million-dollar bribe to support Qatar's 2022 World Cup bid.
Yes, this is why people make FIFA jokes. But, anyway, those reforms would need to pass by a 75 percent majority to be enacted. Experts quoted in a Wall Street Journal piece this week are skeptical that either al-Khalifa or Infantino, both soccer lifers, are really interested in transparent management. (Infantino is a longtime crony of Platini's, and al-Khalifa was involved in violently suppressing pro-democracy protests in Bahrain.) A proposal by Prince Ali to require transparent voting booths, meanwhile, was rejected by FIFA's electoral committee.
What would be the point of having a transparent voting booth?
The answer to that question could have been written by Elmore Leonard: As ESPN explains, in a non-transparent voting booth, voters can freely photograph their ballots—which they could need to do to prove that they voted a certain way in order to collect a bribe they were promised in exchange for their vote. Swiss authorities and the FBI, incidentally, are still investigating the processes by which the 2018 (Russia) and 2022 (Qatar) World Cups were awarded. (Qatar in particular has already proven to be a moral and logistical disaster of a World Cup host country, and Russia is Russia. But it's not clear that criminal charges related to those countries' selections would mean that the upcoming World Cups would be held elsewhere.)
OK, thank you for this concise summary of the state of affairs in international soccer governance. But before you go, please tell me more about Jerome Champagne and Tokyo Sexwale.
It would be my pleasure. Jerome Champagne is a billionaire playboy heir who has the world's largest collection of speedboats, has financed several well-regarded independent films, smokes luxury cigarettes from an ivory holder, and is rumored to be a skilled assassin. Tokyo Sexwale is a sentient and erotically accomplished whale-human hybrid.
Not really. Champagne is a former French diplomat and Sexwale is a diamond-business executive who, when he was younger, was an anti-apartheid activist who was imprisoned for 13 years at Robben Island.