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Who will replace Blatter? A user’s guide to FIFA’s election

Seven candidates have formally entered the race to lead the scandal-ridden world soccer body

It is the profile of the electorate, rather than of any of the eight candidates, that will be the key factor deciding the race to succeed Sepp Blatter as president of FIFA. The ballots will be cast in February by the 209 national member federations of global soccer’s governing body, with each association having one vote. That means that the countries housing the world’s most powerful leagues — such as England, Spain, Italy and Germany — each has the same voting power as such minnows as Trinidad and Tobago, Iceland, North Korea and New Zealand.

The winning candidate, then, will be the one capable of building the widest coalition of member federations. The secret to Blatter’s power, as well as that of his patron and predecessor João Havelange, was to redistribute resources, from the industrialized countries to the developing world. This didn’t necessarily involve corruption; often it was simply a case of earning the loyalty of a federation’s leadership by providing it with development funding and tournament hosting rights necessary to boost its domestic game.

While Blatter’s regime eventually drew so much public and legal clamor over allegations of corruption that FIFA’s sponsors turned on him, the electorate, deeply rooted in the status quo, that re-elected him in 2014 — even in the face of growing public disquiet over corruption in FIFA — remains unchanged. Who they will pick to replace a president who for many was also a patron remains a wide-open question. But eight soccer personalities had put themselves in contention when nominations closed on Oct. 26, seven of which made FIFA's final cut on Wednesday.

Michel Platini

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A 60-year-old French former midfield star who runs the powerful European confederation UEFA, Platini was until recently the front-runner in the race to succeed Blatter. The Europeans rallied behind him as an alternative to Blatter, whom they saw as overseeing a corruption administration and whose power base has long been the developing world. And they had built significant support for the Frenchman among other federations. But hopes for a smooth transition were dashed in early October when Platini was suspended for 90 days by FIFA’s ethics committee, which is investigating a $2 million payment he received from Blatter in 2011, ostensibly for consultancy work nine years earlier. 

Prospects: Candidates for the FIFA presidency have to pass an integrity test, meaning that, pending the outcome of the inquiry, Platini may struggle to get his name on the ballot. The emergence of other candidates with clear European backing suggests his road to the FIFA presidency will now be strewn with obstacles.

Sheikh Salman al-Khalifa

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A member of the Bahraini royal family, Salman, 49, is a FIFA vice president and the head of the Asian Football Confederation. He is a longtime Blatter loyalist and has the backing of regional power broker Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah of Kuwait. Salman, a former head of the Bahrain Football Association, has said he would refuse a salary if elected FIFA head and would seek a maximum of three terms, or 12 years, in the position. But his candidacy has been dogged by controversy: He faces startling allegations from a Bahraini human rights organization that he was involved in identifying athletes involved in pro-democracy demonstrations in 2011, resulting in their detention and torture. 

Prospects: Despite his experience in FIFA’s upper echelons, his close ties with Blatter could prove a major handicap. And — although he strongly denies the allegations against him — the publicity over torture claims and his association with a regime that harshly suppresses dissent could prove too much for an organization hoping to turn a page on its depleted global image.

Prince Ali bin al-Hussein

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At 39 years old, he is the youngest of the candidates. The brother of king of Jordan, Ali heads the Jordanian Football Association and the West Asian Football Federation. He was a member of FIFA’s executive committee from 2011 to 2015. He has campaigned for FIFA presidents to be allowed only one term. He was instrumental in FIFA’s decision to lift its ban on players’ wearing the hijab and has campaigned for more women’s involvement in the sport. An advocate for more transparency in the organization, he pushed for the release of the so-called Garcia Report, the internal assessment looking into irregularities and improprieties in the controversial awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

Prospects: He managed in last May’s election to prevent Blatter from winning the necessary two-thirds majority in the first round of voting but lacks support in FIFA and his continental confederation. He has been untainted by the corruption scandals plaguing FIFA, however, and has a high profile internationally as the candidate who challenged Blatter in the last election.

Gianni Infantino

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It’s a sign of the troubles facing Platini that his right-hand-man at UEFA, Infantino, emerged Monday as an eleventh-hour candidate. Infantino, a 45-year-old Swiss national, has the backing of the European confederation, of which he is the general secretary.

Prospects: Unlike Platini, who has been a global figure at the center of the game, Infantino may struggle to win the same degree of support as his UEFA boss would. And it’s widely assumed that Infantino would withdraw should Platini’s candidacy become viable again.

Tokyo Sexwale

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A former guerrilla fighter and political prisoner in South Africa’s national liberation movement, Sexwale, 62, emerged as a multimillionaire businessman in the post-apartheid era. He played an important role in South Africa’s 2010 World Cup organizing committee, which is under investigation for allegedly paying bribes to win hosting rights. He has been a loyal Blatter ally, helping him face down challenges over his handling of the problem of racism in the game and, more recently, avoid a showdown vote over an attempt by the Palestinian FA to ban its Israeli counterpart from the world body over the impediments placed by the occupation on Palestinian soccer.

Prospects: Despite his charisma and backing from his home federation, his association with Blatter will likely sour the Europeans and some other federations on Sexwale, and it’s not clear that he is the top choice even in the African confederation. Still, he could emerge as a potential compromise in the event of a deadlock among more powerful contenders.

Jerome Champagne

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A French diplomat who spent a decade working for Blatter at FIFA, Champagne, 57, may be the one candidate who has publicly established his credentials as a reformer. In 2012 he published a reform manifesto, and he challenged Blatter for the presidency in 2014 but failed to attract enough support to get his name on the ballot.

Prospects: The fact that Champagne is clearly established as a reformer may count against him, with the FIFA electorate consisting of federations that have, in many cases, been the beneficiaries of the Blatter era. Champagne will struggle, once again, to persuade many federations that he’s a viable candidate.

Musa Bility

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The 48-year-old Bility has been the chairman of the Liberian Football Association since 2010. He lacks popular support, and his candidacy was something of a surprise. He failed to secure backing from African football bosses when he tried to stand for the last election, and the African Football Confederation has yet to endorse him this time.

Prospects: He is a relative newcomer, and his chances appear slim. And his confederation suspended him for several months in 2013 for, it said, “violating statutes relating to the use of confidential documents.”


Update: A previous version of this article included a profile for Trinidadian nominee David Nakhid, one of eight original candidates. However, since publication, FIFA has excluded Nakhid from the final ballot list and only seven remain. 

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