In about five hours, while you are sleeping soundly, FIFA will begin voting in Zurich for its next president. The secret ballot will be held by the 209 member associations of FIFA, who each hold one vote, meaning that Maldives has the same voting power as Germany. In the first round of voting a candidate must win two-thirds of the vote to win. If no candidate garners two-thirds of the vote, a second round of voting is held, where a simple majority will get it done.
Originally there were four candidates up for election, but former Real Madrid star Luis Figo and Royal Dutch Football Association chairman Michael van Praag dropped out of the election last week. I’ll bet they wish they could reconsider those decisions! The two candidates left running are the Swiss Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, who has been FIFA’s president since his first election in 1998, and the Jordanian Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, the current Vice President of FIFA for Asia.
Since you have been reading our coverage of the FIFA corruption scandal this week, you’re surely wondering how anybody in their right mind could vote for that ineffectual and corrupt doofus Sepp Blatter. It is a good question, and in fact the football associations in a number of countries have announced, with varying degrees of certainty, their support for Prince Ali. Those countries are Austria, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Costa Rica, Croatia, England, Finland, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Netherlands, Norway, Romania, Scotland, Sweden, United States, Uruguay, and Wales. There may be more that I missed.
The astute among you will observe that there are only 19 countries on that list. It’s a good start, but still a far cry from the 105 votes Prince Ali will need to unseat Blatter. In fact, pretty much everybody that has handicapped the election—even after the vast scale of corruption in FIFA that was revealed when the US Department of Justice went gangbusters—believes that Blatter is still going to win handily. Huh?
As FiveThirtyEight explains extremely well, FIFA’s one country, one vote system basically begs to be corrupted, and is also the source of Blatter’s power. Here is the money quote:
This isn’t only a theoretical problem of inequity. Soccer power in smaller nations concentrates itself in fewer officials and stakeholders. That makes the nations’ votes — votes that occur in secret FIFA ballots — more vulnerable to corruption from bribery. In the indictments Wednesday, the Justice Department alleged, among other charges, that voters took bribes in both the selection of the 2010 men’s World Cup and the 2011 FIFA presidential election. Among those indicted was Jeffrey Webb, president of the football association of the Cayman Islands (population: 58,435).
But bribes aren’t the only thing that might influence those smaller nations. It’s aboveboard money, too. A small amount of funding from FIFA will go much further in a tiny island territory than in a superpower.
“If the organization had a stronger reputation for integrity, this might not matter so much,” Robin Hodess, group director of advocacy and research for the anti-corruption group Transparency International, said about FIFA’s voting structure. “This is a difficult issue to solve — you want democratic organizations, but you don’t want that to be abused,” Hodess said.
Basically, Blatter’s power is based around a strategy of support from the tiny soccer nations. He doesn’t even need to outright bribe countries like Saint Lucia or Timor-Leste—yes, those are two of FIFA’s member associations—but merely steer a couple hundred thousand dollars earmarked for “youth soccer development” or the like to those countries’s football associations. That is much simpler than convincing Germany and England to vote for you.
If there is any hope for Blatter’s ouster, it lies with the continental confederations. There are six different confederations—generally representing each of the six non-Antarctica continents—that are the governing body for soccer on their respective continent. Often in these elections, members of the same confederation band together because they have similar interests. And while most countries have not revealed how they intend to vote—and even if they have, the ballot is secret, so their declaration could just be public relations—we have an idea of how blocks of countries will.
AFC (Asia, 46 votes) - AFC has traditionally been Blatter’s largest supporter, and will continue to be, even though the opposing candidate is from Jordan, an AFC member country. At three separate conferences over the past year AFC stated its support of Blatter, and that won’t waver. Perhaps a few Middle Eastern will vote for Prince Ali, but that’s about it.
CAF (Africa, 54 votes) - CAF members will unanimously vote for Blatter, if their confederation president is to be believed (he probably is). Africa is the largest confederation, and like AFC, is a longtime Blatter supporter. The Guardian has a good deep dive into Zambian soccer that explains how Blatter helps funnel money to soccer development projects all across the African continent. Which, to an extent, is a good thing. African countries rightfully fear that, in the wrong hands, FIFA would only work for the rich European countries, at the expense of Africa. But Blatter isn’t funneling this money to Africa from the good of his heart, but to bribe them:
“A good idea is also being used against principles of democracy,” said Simataa Simataa, a former president of the Zambian FA. “People tend to favour anyone doing a good thing; they will take houses from Pablo Escobar using drug money. Unfortunately that is what the Goal programme has been.
“I wish it was an institutional project but it’s seen as favouring certain characters, namely Sepp Blatter. It gives an advantage to him and a disadvantage to others, even if they have better ideas. In that sense he’s got a fixed vote: everyone thinks when the next guy comes there’ll be no Goal project any more.”
CONCACAF (North America, Central America, Caribbean, 35 votes) - CONCACAF is a damn can of worms, and anybody who expresses certainty as to how its members will vote is a fool. As evidenced by the United States, Canada, and Costa Rica declaring their support for Prince Ali, the more developed countries are clearly anti-Blatter. But as it turns out, the majority of CONCACAF members are tiny Caribbean islands that have traditionally supported Blatter. But here is where it gets crazy.
One of the biggest FIFA fish arrested yesterday was Jeffrey Webb, a former CONCACAF president and FIFA vice president from the Cayman Islands. Webb is corrupt as all hell, but to the Caribbean nations he is their corrupt guy, and they apparently feel that Blatter didn’t express enough support for him after his arrest, so they might vote against him. That’s the perfect example of FIFA logic.
CONMEBOL (South America, 10 votes) - CONMEBOL’s position is extremely difficult to pin down. At their March meeting, which Blatter attended, they did not endorse him for president, something they have typically done in the past. CONMEBOL member Uruguay has expressed anti-Blatter sentiments, and journalists are hearing rumors that CONMEBOL is generally moving towards Prince Ali. Brazil probably won’t participate in the vote as one of their two representatives was arrested and the other has fled Zurich, leaving only nine CONMEBOL votes. No matter what happens, they’re the smallest, and therefore least powerful, confederation in this vote.
OFC (Oceania, 11 votes) - Oceania is so small and ineffectual that Australia lobbied for and successfully left OFC ten years ago, for the Asian confederation. There has been very little reporting on how these countries will vote, but it’s a decent bet that New Zealand will join Australia in voting for Prince Ali, and the rest will vote for Blatter.
UEFA (Europe, 53 votes) - UEFA originally proposed boycotting the vote altogether, and the member countries will largely vote for Prince Ali. Part of Blatter’s strategy has always been to wrest power away from the traditional power holders in the sport. That is why we have had World Cups awarded to South Africa (2010), Brazil (2014), Russia (2018), and Qatar (2022) under his tenure. There used to be a system where every other World Cup was held in Europe, but under Blatter that system is no longer in place. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it speaks to one of the big reasons that Blatter has lost the vote of Europe.
Some quick math shows just how tough it will be for Prince Ali to win. In Africa and Asia alone there are 100 votes, of which Blatter probably has 90 or more. That means he just needs to pick off 15 votes from the tiny island nations in the Caribbean, South Pacific, and maybe Russia and a few in South America for good measure. Even if every single highly-developed country—the country you probably live in, the countries that produce the anti-Blatter soccer media that you read—votes against Blatter, it isn’t nearly enough to oust him.
Which is unfortunate, because Blatter needs to be ousted. Lopping off the head isn’t going to solve the problems within FIFA—if anything, this week’s arrests demonstrated how pervasive corruption is across all facets of the organization—but it would be a damn good start.