(ATR) The UEFA Congress was the first major battleground for the three football executives vying to unseat Sepp Blatter from the FIFA throne.
Jordanian Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein, former Portugul great Luis Figo and Dutch FA president Michael van Praag took to the stage in Vienna – the first time they have presented to any confederation congress. Incumbent Sepp Blatter chose not to participate but spoke earlier in his capacity as FIFA chief.
Van Praag Hits the Target
Of the three, Michael van Praag came across the best in a speech peppered with digs at Blatter’s leadership, echoing critical comments he made at last year’s UEFA Congress in June.
"After a life with many administrative functions in football, I simply cannot accept that we leave FIFA in its current shape for the next generation," he said, before launching his volley of criticism.
"The beautiful heritage of international football has been tarnished by ever continuing accusations of corruption, bribery, nepotism and waste of money," he said, speaking to football officials from Europe’s 54 federations who he can call friends after three decades in the game.
"Don’t get me wrong, FIFA has accomplished great things. But the current state of disarray asks for a change in leadership. I cannot look away. It is the responsibility of our generation to clean up the mess."
The 67-year-old told delegates that he had no interest in serving for more than one term at the helm of world football, but "to start the normalisation process towards a more open, democratic and credible FIFA, to be handed over to the next generation in 2019".
He called for "a more humble FIFA, back to basics, mostly occupied with helping member states to improve the position of football in their countries. This is why I propose to quadruple the allowance for member states to one million dollars every year".
Van Praag said FIFA needed to be more transparent "an organisation that sees criticism as an encouragement to do better. An organisation that does not scorn its own people when they give their opinion but an organisation that openly debates the future of football". This was a not so subtle reference to the controversy over FIFA’s refusal to publish in full the World Cup bidding investigation report by US lawyer Michael Garcia, the FIFA corruption-buster who quit in acrimony a few months ago.
Prince Ali: Subtle Swipes at Blatter
While Van Praag had some of the best lines, Prince Ali’s speech pulled no punches in highlighting what he perceived to be the failures of Blatter and his administration. But he sounded nervous and because he rattled through his script, his blows at Blatter were less effective than they might have been.
"We are in a crucial time for football. Both inside and outside the football family, people have expressed concern about the way FIFA is run," he said. "And there are some deep-rooted issues that we as a family must unite to confront together.
"Around the world there is a real appetite for change, new leadership, better support to national associations, meaningful investment in football development, and for FIFA to be a genuine service organisation."
He added: "This movement calls for a better FIFA, one based on respect and dignity, admired by our stakeholders, and governed with a spirit of inclusion and transparency."
In January at his London launch, the outgoing FIFA vice president slammed the "culture of intimidation" at FIFA under Blatter’s stewardship.
This time he sought to emphasize how Blatter had failed deliver good governance and empower its 209 member associations worldwide.
"We need a change of culture and a departure from FIFA’s authoritarian approach to strategy," he said.
"Strategicdirection must come from the confederations and member associations so that their interests become the priority in the future. So, this election is not simply about choosing a person you believe in, it is about choosing a future for football and for FIFA, your FIFA."
Prince Ali, 39, plans to publish his detailed manifesto next month after gauging feedback from the leaders of confederations and FAs he has met on the FIFA presidential campaign trail since January.
He spoke about the FIFA’s successful commercial activities - the Brazil World Cup brought record revenues of $2 billion for the federation in 2014. FIFA generated $140.7 million in profit. Its cash reserves are currently a whopping $1.523 billion.
But he said that while the popularity of the World Cup had soared, "the image of the organisation has sadly declined".
He asked the UEFA audience to "imagine a rejuvenated FIFA, with its own reputation rebuilt and restored, coupled with the love of football"… "the only possible outcome will be explosive commercial growth far exceeding what we see now".
In a further dig at Blatter’s dictatorial style of leadership, Prince Ali suggested the commercial achievements and additionalfunds from FIFA reserves should be channeled into a new formula for FIFA’s development programmes.
The Jordanian, whose Asian Football Development Project has assisted many Asian grassroots projects, raised the problem of the haves and have-nots in global football. He said many FAs "still do not have their basic needs met such as kits, pitches and infrastructure, while others have a different pressure of reaching the knockout stages of the World Cup".
Later in his address, he was quick to pay tribute "to the vision and dedication of president Platini, praising his "inspirational leadership". Platini is a firm ally, although the Frenchman has yet to formally endorse any of the three candidates.
With two months until the FIFA presidential election, Prince Ali said it was "essential that together we focus on the opportunity for real change and genuine reform. "This is a crossroads which could set FIFA on a new and positive path."
Poor Figo Delivery
Figo’s speech paled in comparison to his FIFA rivals.
His attempts to woo the UEFA crowd were undermined by a speech largely lacking substance or any effective swipes at Blatter.
The former Real Madrid and Barcelona star delivered platitudes, talking about the need for change, trust in a new FIFA leader and the need to find solutions to tackle the problems in football.
He spoke of investing more in grassroots programmes and funding FAs from FIFA coffers. But he was far from convincing; there was little detail about how it could be achieved.
Referring to accusations that he has been put up by UEFA to take on Blatter, he said "I am not acting as a special agent to go and conquer Zurich".
One line that may have resonated among the UEFA delegates was his suggestion that all-powerful Blatter was autocratic. He said: "FIFA shouldn’t depend on its president… it’s not healthy for FIFA or any organization."
"You all need to be more present in FIFA life," Figo said, calling for a new philosophy in the management of FIFA to deliver a stronger governing body that could benefits football from the elite side of the game down to the grassroots.
Written by Mark Bissonin Vienna
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