LONDON — In soccer, the only certain winner seems to be Sepp Blatter.
Every threat to him has been seen off and a stranglehold on the seat of power in the world’s most popular sport has been maintained since 1998.
Three men were vying to stop Blatter from winning a fifth term, but only one will now be on the ballot next Friday: Prince Ali bin Al-Hussein of Jordan.
Luis Figo had been the only former player in the contest, but the ex-Barcelona and Real Madrid star quit the race on Thursday. The former world player of the year denounced the election as a “plebiscite for the delivery of absolute power to one man.”
Dutch soccer federation president Michael van Praag also withdrew his low-key candidacy with a week to go.
Both men had grown increasingly frustrated about their inability to get their voices heard within a sport that seems content with Blatter in charge. Touring regional confederation meetings in recent months, it was Blatter who was able to command most rostrums as the incumbent while his challengers were largely left to lobby for votes behind the scenes.
While Blatter has remained largely mute on his plans for a fifth, four-year term, Prince Ali, Figo and Van Praag produced vast manifestos. Between proposals to make FIFA more transparent and to expand the World Cup, the main selling point was purely that their name is not Blatter.
If regular fans had a vote, Blatter might be clearing out his office in FIFA’s sleek Zurich headquarters next Friday. But the 79-year-old Swiss executive’s support base remains so strong in the 209-nation organization, particularly in Africa and the Americas, that next week’s result seems certain.
“I wonder why that is because whatever he does he is bashed, everybody seems to be against him,” Van Praag told The Associated Press. “If you openly declare that you vote for Michael van Praag they are afraid if Blatter is re-elected that they maybe are afraid they will be removed from the list.”
The “list” is officials who are deployed to about 800 World Cup qualifiers as a FIFA representative, enjoying several days of luxury travel and hospitality.
“It is not just money that people always believe, I think it is more a matter of being a match delegate, being in a committee and things like that,” Van Praag said. “That’s the power. It’s very hard to break through.”
When Blatter pledged before his unopposed re-election in 2011 that it would be his last term, UEFA president Michel Platini emerged as the favourite to succeed his one-time mentor. When it became clear Blatter would renege on his pledge and stand again, Platini ducked out of a duel but remains a critic from the sidelines.
“I won’t support Blatter anymore,” the former France great announced at the 2014 World Cup.
In what appeared to be a direct challenge to Platini, Blatter addressed his critics last year by saying: “Don’t speak, go out and fight.”
The presidential election is Platini’s proxy war, with his London-based communications advisers orchestrating Prince Ali’s campaign.
The softly-spoken Jordanian has the regal title but struggles to command the court of FIFA when up against the charismatic Blatter. The 39-year-old prince said the FIFA vote should “not based on personality but based on a mandate.”
In his first year on the executive committee, the prince pursued a socially progressive agenda and fought off resistance from FIFA’s medical panel to ensure that female Muslim players would be allowed to wear head scarves from 2012. Having served as a FIFA vice-president, the Jordanian federation president will lose his seat at soccer’s top table unless he beats Blatter.
The prince’s presidential manifesto veers little from the Blatter blueprint, pledging to redistribute more of FIFA’s funds, raising the handouts to the 209 national associations to $1 million a year. But in a further enticement to voters, the prince is vowing to expand the World Cup from 32 to 36 teams in time for Russia in 2018 and then to explore including even more countries from 2022.
To prevent someone from establishing a powerbase again like Blatter or predecessor Joao Havelange, who have controlled the presidency for 41 years, the prince would impose a limit of two four-year terms.
But he has complained that “a culture of intimidation within FIFA” would have to be overcome to win the first contested presidential vote since 2002.
“We could gain so much more if there was more faith and more trust in how FIFA is run,” the prince told the AP.
The change he desires might have to wait until 2019. Blatter, though, is yet to rule out pursuing a sixth term to continue as the sport’s most powerful man.
Associated Press writer Mike Corder in Amsterdam contributed to this report.
Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris
Rob Harris, The Associated Press