FIFA presidential election: How much will things change or remain the same?
Since May 2015, when the FBI exposed it as the most corrupt major sports organization in the world, FIFA has had to restore public confidence in its governance of global soccer. Yet here we stand, a day before the most critical presidential election in its history and these are the candidates who are competing for the job of instituting reform:
Gianni Infantino, an entrenched European soccer bureaucrat and second in command at Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) where he studied at the feet of Michel Platini, who was recently banned from soccer for fraud.
Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein is a member of the hereditary monarchy that has ruled Jordan since the nation's founding.
Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa heads the Asian Football Confederation, the second largest in FIFA, while his family has held power in Bahrain since before George Washington took the oath of office. You'll find more people inclined to change at a Bohemian Grove retreat.
A fourth candidate, Frenchman Jerome Champagne, who served enthusiastically under Sepp Blatter for a dozen years, appears to have little support.
The only one of FIFA's five candidates who has revolutionary bona fides -- Tokyo Sexwale was imprisoned for 13 years alongside Nelson Mandela on Robben Island in apartheid South Africa -- should barely rustle up a few votes on his own continent.
As this long campaign, precipitated by the overwrought resignation of former president Blatter, now draws to a close, it does so with no shortage of speculation over the way the vote will turn. All the while, the candidates have pledged to change FIFA's ways.
But how likely is real change at FIFA? Should we consider this election as a watershed moment, or just more of the same?
"I will work together with member associations and FIFA representatives, to create a FIFA that has nothing to hide," Prince Ali writes in his campaign manifesto.
Infantino states: "Fundamental reforms must be at the heart of FIFA to ensure that it regains the trust of both the football world and the wider public."
"Everybody can say they want reform," Greg Dyke, the chairman of the English Football Association, told ESPN. "It's like saying you believe in heaven and hell. It's what you do that matters."
What the candidates have done in this campaign is engage in many tried-and-true tactics: Strong nations bully weaker ones, confederation bagmen enforce unilateral voting blocs, sources leak incriminating information to British parliamentarians, wild rumors of heightened intrigue spread in gasps of deadline desperation.
The election figures as a two-horse race, with Infantino and Sheikh Salman straining to the finish. Sheikh Salman has received the backing of the Asian group he heads (AFC), along with the endorsement of the African Football Confederation (CAF).
Meanwhile, though UEFA, the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) -- which is in tatters following the U.S. Department of Justice indictments -- and the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) have made no formal pledge, Infantino claims the majority of their support.
It's unclear who the 11 members of the Oceania Football Confederation will support, but every vote will have its weight in what figures to be a close tabulation.
Neither candidate projects to achieve the two-thirds majority -- 138 votes from a total of 207 -- required for victory in the first voting cycle. In subsequent rounds, a simple majority would secure the win, which means 104 votes should be Friday's magic number.
That's why Prince Ali, who appears to have moderate support -- perhaps 30 votes, according to sources -- and thus little prospect of victory, has a key role to play. Should he fail to survive to later rounds (each round of voting requires that the bottom candidate drop out), where will his votes go?
Last year, Sheikh Salman, through a rule change enacted within the AFC, ejected Prince Ali's from his seat on FIFA's executive committee. There's no love lost between the two. In a recent tweet addressed to the Palestinian Football Association, a senior official from Sheikh Salman's hometown Bahraini Football Association claimed that a former Israeli national team player named Shimon Cohen was handling press for Ali.
This was a case of mistaken identity, however, since the Shimon Cohen who works for Ali happens to be Welsh. As the royal court of Jordan contemplates legal action against Bahrain for issuing a racial slur, it's seems likely that Ali won't encourage his supporters to migrate to Sheikh Salman.
Otherwise, the charms of persuasion have been on display throughout this election season. We have seen the resurrection of bloc voting, a scourge of elections past.
The AFC leadership has gathered its entire 47-vote delegation on three occasions in recent months -- in New Delhi in November, in Doha in January and this month in Kuala Lumpur. The message: Maintain the voting bloc for Sheikh Salman.
At the JW Marriott Hotel in New Delhi, representatives from the Bhutan Football Federation were summoned into a side room along with colleagues from other South Asian countries. Little Bhutan, with its population of fewer than one million people, is regularly overlooked in world soccer. But it has just as many FIFA presidential votes as England, Germany, or France.
In this side room, Praful Patel, the president of the All India Football Federation and the figure responsible for delivering the South Asian vote for Sheikh Salman, read the party line.
"It's all about reiterating to members that he is our man," Patel told ESPN. "We give them specific instructions and tell them in no uncertain terms that there can be no splits. The alignment is already in place and there's a bloc understanding on how this election will go."
But the understanding wasn't so clear. On the way out of the hotel, the Bhutan delegation was approached by a Japanese soccer official who expressed skepticism about Sheikh Salman.
"As a small country, the bigger nations try and bully you," a member of the Bhutan delegation told ESPN. "In situations like this, you never openly admit who you are going to vote for. That's the kind of pressure we are under."
FIFA ELECTION COVERAGE ON ESPN
- Feb. 22-26, 1:30 p.m. ET (ESPN): Outside the Lines
- Feb. 23-26; 5 p.m. ET (ESPN2): ESPN FC
- Feb. 26, 7 a.m. ET (ESPN2): SportsCenter
- LIVE on ESPN3: Feb. 26, from 2 a.m. ET
This pressure has extended globally. On Feb. 6, Infantino arrived by private plane in Juba, the troubled capital of South Sudan, another neglected country that has sudden importance. He departed with an endorsement from the South Sudan Football Association but it wouldn't last. Days after Infantino's visit, the head of the SSFA, Chabur Goc Alei, issued a statement: "We would like to apologize to all member associations of CAF and our candidate for the FIFA presidency Sheikh Salman."
Infantino's trip to South Sudan illustrates the lengths to which the candidates have gone for a single vote. Since July, Prince Ali has visited more than 90 countries, while no candidate has felt the stress of the campaign like Sheikh Salman. After arriving in Zurich earlier this month, he announced that he would go no further. "He had a bit of an exhaustion moment and was told to take it easy," a source in his camp told ESPN.
Sheikh Salman's condition prevented him from traveling to AFC headquarters in Kuala Lumpur. He had invited his delegates there to discuss FIFA reform on Feb. 17. Upon learning of Sheikh Salman's inability to travel, Infantino was only too happy to attend the meeting, flying to the Malaysian capital to address the delegation. AFC officials alerted Sheikh Salman by phone, but there was little else they could do. "We went to make a statement," says a source in Infantino's camp.
After early indications that Infantino might bow out of the election, in return for an appointment as Sheikh Salman's secretary general, the identity of FIFA's next president will now be revealed through the continued backroom brokering of votes. The nature of the process has left some soccer officials concerned about the way forward for international soccer.
"If Blatter was eligible, he would still get elected," says Dyke. "That's what so depressing about the whole thing. There's a Canadian, American, British, a European view of things. And we're now outnumbered. Some things that are culturally accepted in some parts of the world are viewed as criminality in our part of the world."
While the public may desire change in the organization, FIFA's rank and file has little incentive. Recently, in a five-star hotel suite in Doha, Qatar, overlooking various developments for the 2022 World Cup, a FIFA insider discussed the organization's capacity for reform in light of the FBI's investigation.
"It's like when you see a flock of birds all perched in the branches of a tree," he said. "You throw a rock at the tree, and they all fly away. But then a little while later, all the birds fly right back and land just where they were. That's FIFA."