Africa’s search for the next ‘Blatter’ – the suspended Swiss still holds the key

 

REFORM.

The keyword at the fore of the sermons being delivered by most, if not all, candidates contesting the Fifa presidency at the February 26 Extraordinary Congress. In the wake of a series of ethical issues and corruption scandals that have dragged Fifa’s reputation through the mud and knocked some of its biggest personalities — among them, suspended president Sepp Blatter, a number of vice-presidents and several others high up the Zurich-based establishment’s hierarchy — off their lofty, hitherto untouchable perches.

And while talks of a cleaner and more transparent ways of going about FIFA’s business sound sweet to many disillusioned with the world football governing body’s old, largely unpopular methods, not everyone buys into the idea of a Blatter-less organization — well, at least in Africa, that is the case to a very significant extent.

While the septuagenarian had his flaws and as a result (at least from what we know and have read) may be more popular on Mars than on Earth, he did more than enough during his 17-year tenure to be deemed highly esteemed by many in these parts.

Under Blatter, Africa got a fine measure of what it’s always craved but had previously been denied: money, attention, and respect. And it’s come in all forms really, including, but not limited to the awarding of hosting rights for major international competitions (the icing of which was the 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa that brought with it a momentary increase in African representation at the Mundial), financial assistance, personnel training and, oh, those famous Goal Projects littered across Africa!

The latter, though originally a Fifa initiative, became as synonymous with Blatter as his squat shadow and bald pate, and arguably no confederation reaped as much from it as did Africa, with countries across the continent’s length and breadth richly milking and thriving on Fifa Blatter’s largesse.

Take, for instance, landlocked Chad.

Not by any means among the strongest of Africa’s footballing powerhouses, this Central African nation had little business receiving all it did while Blatter held sway: a reported 26 Fifa-commissioned projects since 2011, featuring artificial pitches, a technical centre, gleaming new headquarters for the country’s football governing body, as well as education seminars on marketing, refereeing and grassroots football.

And, remember, that’s just C-H-A-D, populated by only half as many people as you’d find in the whole of Texas.

Under no other Fifa boss would Chad — or any African land for that matter — have ever dreamt of getting so much. Before Blatter, it had been little more than crumbs that Africa constantly found on its plate, and Nigeria Football Federation president Amaju Pinnick couldn’t have summed that fact more succinctly when he shared his thoughts with the BBC just about the period of Blatter’s incredibly short-lived fourth re-election last year.

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“Blatter feels Africa, he sees Africa and he has imparted so much. . . ,” Pinnick gushed at the time. “We don’t want to experiment,” he added, expressing a heartfelt desire that’s surely echoed throughout Africa.

Yet while it is now forced to be by necessity, it’s unlikely Africa would settle on a replacement less sympathetic to its plight than Blatter was. It’s a feeling Blatter’s wannabe successors are all too conscious of, although only one — Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, President of the Asian Football Confederation — has thus far dared to unabashedly play that card.

When the Bahraini, along with fellow candidate Prince Ali bin Hussein (who lost to Blatter in May 2015′s polls) and the Uefa-backed Gianni Infantino, addressed some of West Africa’s most powerful football administrators at the 2016 Wafu Zone B General Assembly at the Mövenpick Ambassadorial Hotel in Accra on Tuesday, he sold to his audience nothing more than they wanted to hear, stopping just short of declaring himself Blatter 2.0.

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(Clockwise from top left) Tokyo Sexwale, South African Minister of Human Settlement, Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein President of the Jordan Football Association, Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, President of the Asian Football Confederation, UEFA General Secretary Gianni Infantino and Jerome Champagne.

“I have always supported Sepp Blatter,” Sheikh Salman boldly declared.

Continuing his serenading, Sheikh Salman stated: “You know we need to focus on the people who need more support and I am sure that, in the past, Sepp Blatter has been successful in introducing such programs to the countries that are in need but again I think this has to continue as well.”

No doubt many of those who gulped down Sheikh Salman’s words — notably Ghana’s FA president, Kwesi Nyantakyi, himself a prospective future Caf boss whose mandate as head of Wafu Zone B was renewed at said event — may have left the premises feeling pleased with what they’d heard from the one aspirant seemingly willing to go down a route similar to Mr. Blatter’s benevolence and succeed the Swiss in the role of Africa’s footballing patron saint.

It is, of course, a risky stance for the 50-year-old — as well as for any of the candidates who might wish to coo Africa from a similar angle — to adopt, given how unpopular it could make him with the West, to whom Blatter is as far drawn from niceness as imaginable. Even so, if Sheikh Salman shows his Blatter-esque side to his own Asian caucus — most of whom would also readily preach to you the gospel according to Blatter, considering all he did for them, too — as well as he portrayed it in Africa, that could be magic. Not forgetting the Dark Continent’s 50-odd votes, save the handful of inevitable dissenters and those who’d opt to back South African contender Tokyo Sexwale, could help breathe life into his dreams.

It isn’t that Africa doesn’t appreciate any reforms after Fifa’s first change in rulership in almost two decades. Oh, we do alright, but only in a different sense.

“My definition of reforms,” starts Pinnick again, “goes beyond fiscal discipline; it goes as far as what is the scientific explanation for CONMEBOL, who have just 12 members, having four slots going to the World Cup, and, we — Africa — with 54 members, have only five slots.

“To me, these are the reforms we should be talking about now. What is the scientific explanation for Uefa having 54 members, the same with Africa, but have 13 slots to go to the World Cup.”

And that, my dear friend, is as unequivocal as it could ever get. Africa has spoken, and may the ‘best’ Sepp man win it over.

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