Presuming that their motorcades can make it through the traffic jams should the São Paulo mass transit strike resume, FIFA will stage one last show before the football finally kicks off on Thursday – its decision-making Congress. Held over two days, on June 10 and 11 in the Trans America Expo center, the Congress is made up of delegates from all 209 member associations, each given one vote. In the governing body of international soccer, the vote of American Samoa or Liechtenstein carries the same weight as that of Brazil or the United States.
Unwieldy as that may sound, the Congress has tended to rubber-stamp decisions made by FIFA’s president and executive committee, to whom many of the small member countries are in thrall. Still, the event does offer both coded political theatre and a rare window on the workings of FIFA – while the executive meets behind closed doors, the congress is open and will be streamed in its entirety by FIFA.com. It promises to be be both entertaining and enlightening.
At previous World Cups, the congress has provide particularly good sport, particularly in the contest for the FIFA presidency. The 1974 World Cup in West Germany was preceded by the victory of the Brazilian challenger João Havelange over the incumbent Englishman Sir Stanley Rous – a moment that began to shift the north-south balance in the global game. France 1998 began with the bruising election of Havelange’s Swiss protégé, Sepp Blatter, over Swede Lennart Johannson. In 2002, the Ivorian Issa Hayatou took on Blatter and was soundly beaten in a very bad-tempered affair.
Since then, however, FIFA has decoupled its election cycle from the World Cup calendar, and now holds elections at the Congress that follows a World Cup year. Still, electoral politics will frame much of the congress. No one has officially declared their candidacy: Blatter, despite having promised to stand down as the end of this his fourth term, has made it pretty clear he will be back and his presidential address at the Congress is the perfect opportunity to show a little of his hand.
Michel Platini – the former France midfield star who now heads the European federation, UEFA – has been guarded, but is widely believed to covet the post. Platini himself voted for Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup, but it remains to be seen whether the mounting criticism of that decision is more damaging to the UEFA chief or to Blatter.
Observers will be keeping a close eye on how Platini and his European allies handle the congress. There has been talk of UEFA's delegates refusing to stand for Blatter, who has been courting African support. Others will be watching Jérôme Champagne, an French ex-diplomat and sometime FIFA insider who has been shadow boxing with Blatter and threatening to launch a reformist campaign for the presidency over the last year.
The real politicking and negotiating will not be happening in the Congress hall, of course, but in the bars, the lobbies and over dinner. FIFA.com will not be streaming those encounters, however, so we must make do with the formal order of events. Given that FIFA’s reputation for self-examination and probity is under intense scrutiny, agenda items 3 and 4 – the appointment of scrutinizers, and the suspension and expulsion of members of congress – might raise a smirk from the cynical, but we really get down to business with item 8, President Blatter’s address.
Then it’s on to the FIFA review of the year. We can probably expect some promotional videos to accompany the heavily illustrated Activity Report; what we ought not expect is very much candor. Even if you weren’t expecting warts-and-all reports from the front line, the airbrushed accounts of the 2013 Confederations Cup and the preparations of the 2014 World Cup defy belief.
The real business of football governance is dealt with in Item 11, strategic and sports-political matters. This includes reform of the system of licensed player agents whose income depends on moving players around for the highest-possible transfer fees; the contested football politics of Israel and Palestine, Kosovo and Cyprus; and the increasingly worrying and widespread problem of match-fixing.
However, as if with intentional dramatic timing, FIFA have left the best till the end. Item 12 on the agenda considers matters left over from previous congresses, including whether FIFA should adopt the recommendation of its own reform program, including term limits and age limits for the presidency and the executive committee. This topic will be of keen interest to Blatter, who is 78 and has already served four terms as President.
After this there will be a series of votes on changes to FIFA’s statues of mind-numbing triviality, the rubber-stamping of internal appointments and, for some unfortunates, the bestowal of honours and final presidential remarks. Enjoy them while you can. Blatter, like President Roussef – who was booed at last year’s Confederations Cup – has decided not to speak at the opening ceremony.