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Marcotti: FIFA cleaning up its act?

FIFA
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Blatter and Platini bans reduced, Prince Ali questions Sheikh Salman

ESPN FC's Gab Marcotti and Jeremy Schaap weigh in on Gianni Infantino's appointment as the new president of FIFA.
Gianni Infantino wins on the second ballot with 115 of the 207 votes.
ESPN's Jeremy Schaap discusses the new reality of FIFA as Gianni Infantino was elected the next FIFA president.

Gab Marcotti reports on all the latest FIFA news from Zurich ahead of the Extraordinary Congress to elect a new president on Friday. Follow the election on WatchESPN starting at 2 a.m. ET. 

ZURICH -- On Wednesday, FIFA's appeals committee reduced the ban inflicted on Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini for the 2 million Swiss Franc "disloyal payment" back in 2011. It went from eight years to six years, just in time for the Qatar World Cup, as some observed.

Blatter's legal team called the decision "disappointing" and vowed "to fight until the end" to clear the former FIFA boss's name. Platini's crew called it "offensive" and "shameful".

In some ways, the appeals decision is just a case of going through the motions. Barring an improbable acquittal, they were always going to take their case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which will have the final word.

But two things stand out here.

One is that the punishment has gone from a lifetime ban (requested by the investigatory branch of the ethics committee) to an eight year ban (decreed by the adjudicatory branch of the ethics committee) to a six-year ban (according to the appeals committee). It's the incredible shrinking sentence. It makes you wonder about the ability for the charges to stick once they move on to CAS in Lausanne.

The other is that you have the distinct impression that FIFA -- as in the physical bureaucracy of the organization and the rank and file employees rather than the bigwigs on the executive committee -- is pursuing an obvious strategy of ridding itself of anyone deemed to be problematic. Problematic here is defined in terms of image and, possibly, legal implications.

Indeed, the Wall Street Journal reported that it's part of a clear game plan. Given the various investigations and the potential for further legal action, it's critical that FIFA, as an organization, maintain its status as the victim of alleged corruption of certain individuals, rather than the enabler (or the perpetrator).

That means jettisoning anyone with the slightest whiff of anything.

The interesting thing is that while some -- like Russian president Vladimir Putin -- depicted the original Loretta Lynch investigation as a U.S.-led "persecution" against FIFA, the organization is now in some ways as U.S.-led as possible. FIFA's legal advisor is the U.S. white shoe law firm Quinn Emanuel. The guys who are advising them on strategic communications are part of a U.S. outfit named Teneo.  

Prince Ali questions Sheikh Salman

Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein says he was cautioned by the electoral committee for speaking out against Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, specifically the allegations that he played a role in the violent crackdown on pro-Democracy protestors in Bahrain in 2011.

He says he was answering "legitimate questions" and, frankly, he's right. Those allegations against Salman, which he has consistently denied, saying whatever happened was beyond his control, may or may not be founded in reality, but they're out there and candidates ought to be free to discuss them, as long as they don't slip into slander.

It may be uncomfortable for some -- well, for Salman -- but what's the alternative? Pretending they don't exist?

FIFA's decision backfires

We don't know whose brainchild it was -- whether Teneo or somebody else -- but FIFA's decision to ask the five presidential candidates for access to their intended victory speeches while providing suggested answers to potential questions in the post-election press conference has backfired badly.

Several candidates have said that, if elected, they'll say what they please and won't have FIFA's bureaucrats interfere. Gianni Infantino said that if elected he'll speak his mind "without any fear and, on the contrary, saying what [he thinks]."

You can see why FIFA did this. They need to maintain the status as victims of whatever improprieties might have taken place. A newly minted FIFA president saying certain things in the wrong way, or with the wrong language, might compromise that.

At the same time, in terms of image, having a bunch of lawyers and PR strategists vetting what your new leader is allowed to say in public in his first hour on the job doesn't look very good for an institution trying to be more honest and transparent.

'See-through' voting booths rejected

Speaking of transparency, Prince Ali's request for "see-through" plastic voting booths was rejected first by FIFA's electoral committee and then by CAS. Prince Ali had hoped that the transparent booths would prevent voters from photographing their ballots.

Why would they do that? Because, at the risk of sounding cynical, if you need to prove who you voted for (either because you sold your vote or because you did a deal or simply because there's a bullying regional powerbroker that wants you to vote a certain way) there is no better method than a quick snapshot.

Prince Ali even went through the trouble of ordering up transparent voting booths (goodness knows where he got them) and having them delivered to the Zurich airport. It's all for nothing.

Instead we'll have to rely on a ban on smartphones at the polls and the three invigilators who will watch the candidates as they fill out their ballots.

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

Campaigning for votes

Endorsement by a confederation only means so much. In the privacy of the polling booth (well, apart from the three invigilators) you can vote for who you like. So the fact that Africa and Asia have endorsed Sheikh Salman while Europe and South America have gone for Infantino is no guarantee they'll clean up in either confederation. (In fact, Infantino's people say they're confident he'll get as much as half of the African vote; if he does, he'll be the favorite.)

So the last 48 hours before the election was all about trying to convince the undecided or those who had decided but could yet be persuaded.

CONCACAF and Oceania have not officially endorsed a candidate, so to make the process more straightforward Oceania are staging a full-fledged "beauty contest" for candidates. Each of the five candidates will be given an hour each in a room with Oceania's 11 voters. That adds up to five hours. Believe me, while some candidates are funny and engaging and entertaining, most are not. Five hours is a long time to be stuck in room listening to election promises.

It almost makes you feel sympathy for the FIFA delegates. Almost.

Gabriele Marcotti is a columnist for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.

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