IT WAS A SCENE straight out of a Parks and Recreation town hall meeting, the kind that makes you wonder: These are the voters? Osiris Guzmán, the president of the Dominican Republic's soccer federation, will cast one of the 209 votes in the FIFA presidential election on Feb. 26—the most important election in the 112-year history of the scandal-plagued governing body. Last year Guzmán gave a speech comparing Sepp Blatter, the now banned FIFA president, to Jesus Christ, Nelson Mandela, Moses, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King Jr. Inexplicably, he left out Mahatma Gandhi.
Yet Guzmán's voice matters. In the one-country, one-vote world of FIFA, the Caribbean (with 23 votes) is a vital battleground, kind of like Pennsylvania in the U.S. presidential election. And all those voters were on hand in mid-January in Antigua and Barbuda as Guzmán stood to ask a question of FIFA presidential candidate Prince Ali bin Al Hussein of Jordan at a meeting of the Caribbean Football Union. (Three of the five candidates were there.) At a similar preelection gathering in 2011, a Qatari candidate, Mohammed bin Hammam (also banned), offered envelopes with $40,000 cash to each Caribbean voter. Guzmán was later fined by the FIFA ethics committee and served 15 days of a 30-day suspension. But even amid U.S. attorney general Loretta Lynch's sweeping criminal investigation, which has resulted in the arrest of 39 global soccer officials and plunged FIFA into crisis, Guzmán is still around, still a voter. And cleaning up FIFA doesn't seem to be high on his list of priorities.
Or at least it wasn't when he faced Prince Ali—the most reform-minded of the FIFA presidential candidates—and rambled through a five-minute, 23-second filibuster that would have made Fidel Castro proud. Referring at various times to a Dominican poet, a homily about an artist painting the beak of a bird, his master's degree and his 30 years as an engineer, Guzmán hailed his own "great technique for choosing a manager that is called 'peel the onion.'" He eventually asked, "What is your specialty? What is your experience? Have you ever worked under pressure? And finally, most important: What is your plan in the short and medium term?"
Prince Ali, a member of the Jordanian royal family who challenged Blatter and lost in last May's FIFA presidential election, waited patiently for the end of Guzmán's lecture. "Thank you very much for that," he finally said. "Just for my background, I served as a soldier for many years and still do that.... Worked under pressure? In the last period I served as the director of our country's crisis management center. And maybe that's a good thing to have on the CV for a FIFA president at this particular stage."
And so it went. Not every questioner launched into an endless speech—some addressed the candidates' positions on women's soccer, travel costs and the game's infrastructure in the Caribbean—but there were plenty of eye-opening statements. When candidate Gianni Infantino of Switzerland, the general secretary of the European confederation, addressed the CFU meeting, Guyana coach Jamaal Shabazz lobbied him to provide more coaching instruction from Europe, saying, "We think that [Europe] has some compensation for the Caribbean because you were our colonial masters, and we feel football is the best avenue to redress this situation."
Such is the nature of the FIFA presidential campaign: The candidates have to appeal to the voters, knowing that most voted for Blatter last May (four days before he announced under pressure that he would resign) and aren't at all convinced that FIFA needs to change.
At least Prince Ali has kept his sense of humor. When he finished his Q-and-A session and was presented with a CFU pennant by the federation's president, Gordon Derrick, he deadpanned, "Thank you. I would give you something in return, but you know, this ethics thing."
The room filled with laughter. "I heard that!" one voter bellowed.
"Especially nothing in bags!" said Derrick.
WHY IS this election so important? Soccer is the world's biggest sport, and the men's World Cup is its grandest event, the sole reason FIFA has cash reserves of $1.5 billion. And the results of this election will bring FIFA into the 21st century. After serving as FIFA president since 1998, the 79-year-old Blatter received an eight-year ban from the sport in December for what Swiss investigators are calling an off-the-books "disloyal payment" of nearly $2 million in 2011 to Michel Platini—a onetime ally of Blatter's who was viewed as his most likely successor until he too got an eight-year ban from FIFA's ethics committee. (Both men deny any wrongdoing and are appealing.)
Alleging money laundering and the doling out of hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes, the ongoing U.S. and Swiss probes have begun to expose the rot that has pervaded FIFA's top management and its continental confederations for decades. On two occasions in 2015, in May and December, Swiss agents, working with colleagues from the U.S., raided the tony Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich to arrest soccer officials. That might happen again at the gathering for this month's election. FIFA's credibility is at an all-time low, and now the organization is set to vote on reform measures that include transparency in salaries, more executive spots for women, background checks for candidates, and 12-year term limits for top officials.
But the new FIFA president will set the tone of the reform process, and the candidates, to say nothing of the federation presidents, have differing views on the severity of the crisis. Most Americans would be forgiven for seeing the names of the five men running for FIFA president and thinking they were at a VIP table at the Star Wars cantina. Tokyo Sexwale! Jérôme Champagne! Prince Ali! Gianni Infantino! Sheikh Salman!
There are two favorites. Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, a member of Bahrain's ruling family and the president of the Asian confederation, is expected to draw nearly all of Asia's 46 votes and most of Africa's 54. (In the election's first round, a candidate needs a two-thirds majority of the 209 votes to win; a simple majority is needed after that.) Infantino, the general secretary of the European confederation, is expected to draw most of Europe's 53 votes and has recently built momentum by announcing endorsements from 10 South American voters, all seven Central American countries and several Caribbean nations.
Prince Ali drew 73 votes (including the U.S.'s) as the only challenger to Blatter last May, but much of that support came from the European confederation, which now has Infantino as its candidate. Yet Prince Ali could still have a big influence on the outcome if he directs his support (around 30 votes) in the latter rounds toward Infantino or Sheikh Salman. Even long shot Champagne, a former French diplomat who once served as FIFA's deputy general secretary under Blatter, could play a role. He is expected to have the support of a half dozen countries. Former South African civil rights leader Tokyo Sexwale—pronounced sek-WA-lay—was all but eliminated from the race after the African confederation backed Sheikh Salman on Thursday.
By week's end SI had interviewed all the candidates except Sheikh Salman. (More from the interviews can be found on SI.com.) One significant trend emerged: While Blatter may be on his way out, his strategy of spreading FIFA's largesse to developing (read: voting) soccer countries is alive and well. Infantino proposes raising FIFA's annual distribution to each nation from $250,000 to $1.25 million, in addition to an annual $250,000 to cover travel costs for needy countries, $10 million to cover soccer development in every region and $1 million to the Caribbean, Africa and parts of Asia to organize youth tournaments. "It is good that FIFA generates money," Infantino argues, while proposing more careful audits. "If this is transparent, we have solved 95% of the real or perceived problems with FIFA."
Spreading the wealth is also supported by Champagne and Prince Ali, who both highlight the importance of increasing funding for the women's game. "Women's soccer is the biggest growth area around the world," says Prince Ali. "There is this idea that if you invest in women's soccer, it will be at the expense of the men's game. So in FIFA we need to separate women's football development so that they have their own program."
The lone dissenter on across-the-board money distribution is Sheikh Salman, who wants to impose need-based funding but argues that Infantino's proposal flies in the face of FIFA's recent financial losses ($67 million in 2015). "My plan is not to bankrupt FIFA but to revitalize it," Sheikh Salman told Inside World Football, highlighting a manifesto in which he argues for dividing FIFA into separate sporting and business entities.
When it comes to cleaning up FIFA, the most strident language is used by Prince Ali. "I want to bring back pride and faith from all fans," he says. "It's our last chance." Infantino and Champagne are less vocal but still supportive of the need for change. And Sheikh Salman? While calling the U.S. Department of Justice arrests "a shock," he told Sky Sports that "other sports are much worse" than soccer in terms of corruption.
Most concerning of all: Human rights groups have criticized Sheikh Salman, who was Bahrain's soccer federation president in 2011 when the Bahraini state is alleged to have imprisoned and tortured athletes—including national soccer team players—for participating in antigovernment protests. Sheikh Salman denies involvement, but Prince Ali doesn't mince words. "What he didn't do was protect his players," the prince told SI. "And if you want that as a leader for FIFA, I don't agree with that."
On Feb. 26 we'll find out if Sheikh Salman is indeed who the world's voters want to lead FIFA into a new era. And in so doing, we may learn if there will be anything "new" about FIFA at all.
PRINCE ALI BIN AL HUSSEIN
SHEIKH SALMAN BIN EBRAHIM AL KHALIFA
1 to 1
A cofavorite, Infantino has the backing of the European federations and favors raising FIFA's annual distributions to member nations.
500 to 1
The former anti-apartheid activist, political prisoner and government minister could not muster support from even the African confederation.
25 to 1
The most outspoken critic of FIFA among the candidates could throw his considerable support to one of the cofavorites in exchange for tougher reforms.
6 to 5
The other cofavorite has strong support in Asia and Africa but, given FIFA's recent financial setbacks, takes the most conservative approach to money distributions.
250 to 1
Like Prince Ali, this long shot favors increased investment in women's soccer, which both candidates see as the sport's biggest growth area.
Illustration by Darrow For Sports Illustrated
FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA/EPA/LANDOV (CHAMPAGNE); ENRICO CALDERONI/AFLO/ZUMA PRESS (SEXWALE); CLIVE ROSE/GETTY IMAGES (INFANTINO); STUART FRANKLIN/GETTY IMAGES (ALI); HASAN JAMALI/AP (SALMAN)
ANDY RAIN/EPA (INFANTINO)
NASSER NASSER/AP (SEXWALE)
STUART FRANKLIN/FIFA/GETTY IMAGES (ALI)
VINCENT THIAN/AP (SALMAN)
PATRICK SEEGER/DPA/ZUMA PRESS (CHAMPAGNE)