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Sepp Blatter faces Figo, five others in FIFA election: What you need to know

Dutchman Michael van Praag has announced he will stand against Sepp Blatter in the FIFA presidential election.

Q: Plenty of FIFA talk out there. Let me guess, election time again?

A: Yep. May 29, to be exact, at the FIFA Congress. And yes, Sepp Blatter will be running for president again. For a fifth term. At 78 years of age.

Q: And I guess he's going to win again?

A: Well, there's a lot that can happen between now and May 29, but history suggests so. When FIFA last had their congress, before the 2014 World Cup, Blatter's opponents tried to introduce both term limits AND age limits and were resoundingly defeated. That tells you all you need to know here. Lots of folks want to keep him around. And that's what makes it so tough for the five men who are challenging him.

Q: Right, so who are they? Do I need to know their names?

A: Well, there's not one, but two legendary wingers: David Ginola and Luis Figo.

Q: Not just legendary wingers, but handsome men with great hair ...

Luis Figo has thrown his hat in the ring in a bid to unseat Sepp Blatter.

A: True, but let me finish. There's Jerome Champagne, who was the first to announce his candidacy nearly a year ago. He's a former French diplomat who worked at FIFA for 11 years before leaving in 2010 to work as a football consultant. Also, you have the head of the Dutch FA, Michael van Praag, who is a former Ajax chairman, just like his dad, Jaap. Then there's Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein. He's a former FIFA vice president and the president of the Jordanian FA. 

Q: And they'll all be on the ballot?

A: They will if they get at least five of the 209 member Football Associations to endorse them. But that won't be so easy.

Q: Why?

A: Two reasons: First, because if you endorse someone who is running against Blatter, you risk retribution.

Q: Really?

A: At least that's the perception. Blatter likes having lots of friends; if you back someone who is against him, well ... let's just say there's a lot of paranoia among football administrators. Go against him and if FIFA decisions start going against you, your constituency may blame your non-support of Blatter, even if he has nothing to do with it. The other reason is that FIFA are split into confederations along continental lines. Four confederations have already decided -- in the name of "unity" -- to back Blatter. You don't want to annoy your confederation president.

Q: So how are they supposed to get FAs to nominate them?

A: Well, it's tough. I don't think Champagne and Ginola, for example, will get the necessary nominations.

Q: How come?

A: Champagne isn't the most charismatic guy to begin with, and he worked under Blatter for many years. In fact, I don't remember him criticizing Blatter directly at all during his campaign. Some think he got in the race just to flush out other rivals.

Q: And Ginola? He is charismatic ...

A: Absolutely. But he's got several problems. First, the rules state you need to have had an "active role" in football for two of the past five years if you want to run. Ginola was an unpaid consultant for a French third-tier club, Etoile Frejus, but according to the club's president, it was "mainly over the phone." More to the point, he's being paid some $375,000 by a bookmaker whose logo was plastered all over the backdrop at his inaugural news conference. 

That could be a violation of FIFA rules which prohibit links to gambling; an Electoral Committee will determine that. Furthermore, telling folks you're being paid to run and taking money from a bookie isn't particularly clever when sports betting is illegal in more than half the FIFA member nations.

Q: And the others? I mean, I loved Figo as a player and in those cheesy "Just for Men" ads, but he only announced he's running today. How is he going to persuade five FAs to back him?

A: Yeah, that's a different story. Blatter has plenty of supporters, but remember, there are plenty who loathe him as well. Many of those guys are in Europe, and UEFA president Michel Platini isn't at the top of Blatter's Christmas card list, either. There are 53 UEFA member nations, and the vast majority of them won't vote for Blatter. Platini could ask his member FAs to endorse Figo and Van Praag. Maybe Prince Ali, too, if he needs a few more endorsements. There's enough FAs there to do that.

Q: Wait ... that doesn't make any sense. Why would Platini -- if he wants Blatter out -- help three different guys run against him? Won't they just end up splitting the vote?

A: Well, no. I think the idea could be having all three campaign against Blatter and then, as the election nears, figure out who has the best chance to win and ask the others to drop out and rally behind one candidate. That way they can attack him from multiple angles. You have the ex-player in Figo, who is well-connected, speaks five languages and is still very much in the limelight. Van Praag, who is a hugely respected administrator, can go to toe-to-toe with Blatter on policy and is generally well liked. Prince Ali is 39 years old, he's a royal, he's the only non-European in the race and the only one with experience on the FIFA Executive Committee, which may resonate with some voters.

Q: Sounds like a big gamble.

A: It is. But then something unconventional like this could be the only way to unseat Blatter.

Q: Why?

A: It's about numbers, really. You need 105 to be elected president. The Confederation of African Football is officially 100 percent behind Blatter and they have 53 member nations, so even allowing for a handful of dissidents, he's almost halfway there.

Q: Wait. Why is Africa behind Blatter? Didn't the CAF president run against him in 2002?

A: Yes, Issa Hayatou was a harsh critic of Blatter in the past. But they're friends now. And you expect nearly all of Africa's votes to go Blatter's way because the CAF decided to endorse him.

Q: So? Can't you vote for whomever you like even if your confederation endorsed someone else?

A: You can. But the fact of the matter is that you do so at your own peril. Some confederations are very big on "unity" and the idea that once the majority backs someone, everyone has to be on board.

Q: OK, so where else is Blatter going to get votes?

A: South America and its 10 votes have been perennial Blatter strongholds. Oceania announced earlier last month that its 11 members will be backing Blatter (indeed, all 11 signed the letter of support). The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) also voted to back him. They don't block vote as much as the others, but of the 47 member nations, you'd expect more than half, maybe as many as two-thirds, to back Blatter.

Q: OK, so where are we?

A: A conservative estimate would put you at 95 to a 100. Then there are some UEFA members, maybe a half dozen or so mainly in Eastern Europe, who won't follow Platini's lead and will go with Blatter. Then there's CONCACAF, whose president, Jeffrey Webb, said last year that Blatter was a "tremendous president." Maybe not everyone feels that way, but you'd expect the bulk of CONCACAF's 35 votes to also go to Blatter.

Q: So you've thoroughly depressed me. I've been keeping track and I've got Blatter getting some 120 to 150 votes.

A: That's how it looks, doesn't it? And I'm guessing that's why Platini could back a three-headed monster: Figo-Van Praag-Prince Ali. It won't be easy, but maybe if they can divide and conquer and sell voters on the need for a change ...

Q: What's there to sell? Have you been paying attention? It's one corruption scandal after another ...

A: Yeah, except the guys caught up in the corruption are mostly Blatter's enemies or, better yet, friends turned enemies such as Jack Warner and Mohammed bin Hammam. More to the point, I'm not sure to what degree the voters care. What they do care about is getting a share of the global football pie, not necessarily to line their pockets (though some, as we've seen, have proved to be corrupt) but to run their FAs and, more basically, keep organized football alive in their country. Simply put, many small FAs couldn't function without FIFA's contribution. And all they know is that before Blatter came along, FIFA was a closed shop run by Europe and South America. Blatter changed that and gave them a share of the spoils. Anybody wishing to unseat him will need to take that into account and convince them FIFA won't just be less corrupt, but will continue to take care of the little guys. That's a tough task.

Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.


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