Will the new FIFA President end the crisis in Pakistan football? [Nation]

Will the new FIFA President end the crisis in Pakistan football? [Nation]

by Ali Ahsan

FIFA finally has a new President! On 26 February 2016, the world football fraternity met for an Extraordinary Congress in Zurich to vote for a Swiss-born Italian Gianni Infantino as its new supremo. A few hours earlier, members also approved extensive FIFA reforms to ensure transparency and good governance. All this came in wake of ongoing investigations and indictments of senior football officials for corruption that shook up the football world since May 2015. How the American FBI got involved investigating football corruption is a fascinating tale.

Infantino’s election finally ended the controversial 17-year reign of Joseph S. Blatter as FIFA President after being forced out of power and banned by FIFA in late 2015 over ethics breaches alongside UEFA President Michel Platini. Issa Hayatou – a powerful football official from Cameroon – became interim President until the election and was apparently paid handsomely to ensure reform proposals were finalised and approved by all FIFA members.

Infantino himself was a last-minute replacement to Platini in the FIFA elections following the Frenchman’s ban. The Swiss-Italian was then the UEFA General Secretary known more for holding televised draws of the UEFA Champions League and Europa League. Infantino defied the odds to beat strong favourite Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa – member of the Bahraini royalty and also President of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). Other FIFA challengers Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan and former FIFA official Jerome Champagne of France never come close in two rounds of voting while the charismatic South African candidate Tokyo Sexwale withdrew from the race with a brilliant speech before voting began.

Infantino’s campaign was based on the idea that FIFA has to do more for promoting and progressing football worldwide, and even proposed to not only raise the number of FIFA World Cup participants from 32 to 40 teams, but also significantly increase annual financial assistance for its 209 member associations by streamlining FIFA expenses.

Months of campaigning, promises, lobbying, and extensive behind-the-scenes wheeling dealing as witnessed by journalist Declan Hill in Zurich before and during the elections eventually led to Infantino’s win. Everyone at the elections venue kept looking over their shoulders to see if another raid by authorities was coming to crash the party; thankfully for some, no raid took place. Would that have been the case had Salman won instead?

Sports writer Alam Zeb Safi bemoaned that FIFA will remain in control of Europeans and that AFC’s perceived lack of unity led to Sheikh Salman’s loss. However, the vast majority in world football gave a sigh of relief when the controversial Bahraini lost to Infantino. Sheikh Salman has been repeatedly accused of aiding and abetting state human rights abuses to identify, punish, and even torture Bahraini athletes and footballers who may have been part of 2011 anti-government protests at home when still head of Bahrain FA. Also, there is the embarrassing incident of the ‘fake’ Togo national team that ended up playing a friendly in Bahrain back in 2010 arranged by a Singaporean match-fixer posing as a legitimate agent as authorised by BFA also under Salman’s watch. Of course, Sheikh Salman denies any wrongdoing in this regard and even used a London law firm to pressure media outlets with aggressive legal letters.

Noted British author Yvonne Ridley wrote how these strong allegations and questions on Sheikh Salman were the very reasons that led to his defeat. Middle Eastern affairs expert and football follower James M. Dorsey also commented that Salman’s loss can serve as a rude awakening of Arab autocrats in Gulf states and beyond who use football for their ‘soft image’ yet avoid addressing questions over their conduct, unyielding power, and lack of transparency.

Also, one would ask where was AFC’s ‘unity’ for a non-European face to head FIFA when it failed to rally to Prince Ali’s campaign challenging Sepp Blatter in the 2015 FIFA elections. Nonetheless, Sheikh Salman had the support of the AFC in his election campaign – including the Pakistan Football Federation of Makhdoom Syed Faisal Saleh Hayat.

AFC - including Faisal Saleh Hayat - pledging support to Sheikh Salman for 2016 FIFA elections

Faisal Saleh Hayat (left) and rest of AFC supporting Sheikh Salman before the FIFA election (Source: the-afc.com)

Even PFF got named in the many scandals surrounding Sheikh Salman. On the day of the election, a joint report by Dawn’s Umaid Wasim and The Daily Mail’s Nick Harris disclosed leaked documents showing Sheikh Salman’s Bahrain FA may have offered the services of Bahraini coach Mohammad al-Shamlan to PFF for free in order to secure votes for his 2013 AFC Presidency – a breach of FIFA own code of ethics that prohibits gifts that may cause a conflict of interest. Both sides, of course, deny wrong doing. Shamlan’s stint with Pakistan failed to generate any meaningful results due to a strange focus on the U23 side rather than senior team. Under him, Pakistan crashed out early in the 2014 Asian Games, knocked out by Yemen in 1st round of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers in March 2015, and also flopped in the AFC U23 Championship qualifiers held in same month. This, as well as the ongoing PFF political crisis because of disputed election results, corruption scandals, and court cases, means Pakistan is out of competitive international football action till at least 2017.

Pakistan even withdrew from the 2015 SAFF Suzuki Cup late last year; truly the lowest point football in Pakistan has ever seen! While Faisal Saleh Hayat continues to enjoy full FIFA and AFC protocol to attend exclusive conferences and congresses at world football’s expense, Pakistani football remains in utter disarray.

Under previous FIFA administration, the Lahore High Court (LHC) involvement to address PFF’s election disputes and appointing Justice (r) Asad Munir as PFF Administrator was threatened to be deemed as ‘third party / government interference’. Faisal Saleh Hayat’s disputed election win was endorsed by FIFA, but only for a maximum two years rather than the full four-year term. FIFA stated that PFF has to reform its constitutional statutes as desired by the world body and then hold fresh elections; a reasoning which baffled many in the local football fraternity and was criticised as a measure to ‘protect’ Faisal Saleh Hayat.

The under-fire PFF boss may have allegedly sought support from AFC and Sheikh Salman to gain a favourable ruling from FIFA when its delegation met the rival PFF factions back in August 2015 to assess the situation in Pakistan. Further revelations over PFF allegedly taking money meant for its own coaches under AFC financial assistance programs, and alleged illegal sales of 2014 World Cup tickets raises even more questions as to why FIFA has refrained from taking any serious action to address these allegations. Hayat’s PFF have denied any wrong doing, with some even claiming that they have already been cleared by FIFA investigators. With Gianni Infantino now President, the Pakistani football fraternity hopes this crisis in PFF can be resolved sooner rather than later by FIFA. There is a planned FIFA Members Association Committee meeting on 14 March 2016 in which the fate of suspended federations of Indonesia and Kuwait, as well as others like Pakistan, are likely to be discussed. The committee’s recommendations will then be passed onto the FIFA Executive Committee meeting for 17-18 March for a decision. All eyes await what FIFA does next, especially with nothing being disclosed – nor likely done – by PFF over implementing recommendations in the past six months.

FIFA will have to act to address and resolve the PFF crisis with some concrete steps. It has often repeatedly stated it respects national laws and courts, so it may have to work with the Lahore High Court over all allegations of electoral malpractice, corruption accusations, mismanagement, and misgovernance that has plagued PFF for almost a year now. Gianni Infantino has promised reform and transparency within FIFA, and vows to restore world football’s trust in the organisation – especially in the eyes of the sponsors who are a key lifeline of FIFA’s coffers and have also strongly urged reform since last year.

So far, authorities are treating FIFA as a victim of corruption. That may change if it fails to deliver on reform and transparency. FIFA will have to take tough decisions on issues it shied away from in past and show necessary resolve to deliver on its promises. Ending the crisis in Pakistani football is certainly one of them. It has to review contentious decisions regarding misgovernance worldwide in football and take a firm line given its own statutes declare that its 209 members are answerable to FIFA alone and not their own respective national governments for ‘autonomy.’ The crisis in FIFA has meant that this model of sports autonomy should also be duly scrutinised as stated by sports writer Keir Radnage a month before the FIFA elections.

The ball is well and truly in FIFA’s court. It has to act decisively and justly if it wants to redeem its honour worldwide and also resolve the ongoing crisis at associational level amicably. Pakistan, despite being world football’s proverbial nobodies, are a key question to be answered by Mr Infantino and his team.

Published on The Nation blogs, 9th March 2016