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FIFA's top job: less gravy train, more treadmill

A FIFA sign is seen outside the FIFA headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland December 17, 2015. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich/Files
A FIFA sign is seen outside the FIFA headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland December 17, 2015. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich/Files

By Simon Evans

ZURICH (Reuters) - For most of his 17 years at the helm of FIFA, Sepp Blatter travelled the world to be feted like a head of state, with VIP treatment for his private jet, police escorts to whisk his limousine to the best hotel in town, and gala banquets in his honour.

Whoever is elected to succeed him as FIFA president in Zurich on Friday will inherit a very different organisation and a very different job, where crisis management skills are more important than delivering grandiose speeches to fawning audiences.

And, far from providing a platform to dispense largesse in return for loyalty, the position should come with tougher demands and closer scrutiny, thanks to a set of institutional reforms set to be passed just before the next president is chosen.

Had it not been for the sensational arrests of FIFA officials on suspicion of corruption in Zurich last May at the behest of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Blatter would most likely have carried on in the same fashion until 2019.

Then, either Frenchman Michael Platini or Cayman Islander Jeffrey Webb, previously the heads of the European and North American soccer federations, UEFA and CONCACAF, would most likely have succeeded him in a smooth, coordinated transition. And Blatter would probably have been named honorary FIFA president, and indulged with a platform at big events.

But Webb, now under house arrest in the United States, is among the 41 individuals and entities that have been indicted by the DOJ on corruption or fraud charges. And Platini and Blatter have been banned from the game for eight years by FIFA’s own Ethics Committee, caught up in the same whirlwind of legal and media scrutiny.

REPUTATION AT STAKE

Itself under investigation from the DOJ and Swiss authorities, FIFA as an organisation badly needs to rebuild its reputation, whichever of the five candidates becomes president.

“Everyone recognises this is the last chance to get it right,” said one of the candidates, Jordan's Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein. “We don’t want a situation where, two years down the line, more scandals come out.”

Top of the agenda will be implementing the reform package.

The fact that it will be passed before the election largely deprives the new president of the chance to shape the organisation in his own image, while leaving him to manage a complex and untested new set of structures.

Blatter's power was admittedly always far bigger than his formal constitutional role; the huge commercial success of the World Cup ensured a steady growth in revenue throughout his tenure and meant he could keep his support base happy by distributing development grants to federations around the world.

But the new system of oversights, with a full independent Audit and Compliance Committee and a revamped Finance Committee made up of members with genuine qualifications, should limit the scope for what Blatter's critics labelled a "client system".

Professor Alan Tomlinson of the University of Brighton in Britain, author of "FIFA - The Men, The Myths and The Money" and a long-time critic of FIFA, praised what he called "a quite radical set of principles and structural reformations".

"These reforms are really structured in terms of getting rid of the gravy trains and the luxury lifestyle and the expenses for no work," he said, noting that 26 standing committees will be cut back to nine.

"They are asking them to do more work for less reward."

BRIEFINGS AND MEETINGS

For the president, Tomlinson said that meant implementing, with FIFA's own staff, none of whom have been indicted, a strategy reached after debate in the FIFA Council and the committees. "It all sounds very boring, but it is how you could do it."

In place of the gala dinners will also be briefings with FIFA’s American lawyers and advisers, who have since last May been working out of FIFA's Zurich headquarters.

Those lawyers are currently conducting an internal inquiry: yet another probe for the president to deal with.

And then there are the World Cups. Events that should be the crowning glory of a FIFA presidency already look like fraught affairs, thanks to a decision in 2010, beset by controversy but unlikely to be overturned, to award the 2018 and 2022 finals to Russia and Qatar.

Russia is sharply at odds with the West over Ukraine and Syria. And Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers is a lingering issue, as is the difficulty of hosting the tournament in a small, scorching desert state - which has already forced it to be rescheduled for the first time to the northern hemisphere autumn, to the consternation of Europe's rich leagues.

For their part, the five candidates have all been upbeat about the prospect of turning FIFA around.

UEFA General Secretary Gianni Infantino and Bahraini royal Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa are the bookmakers' frontrunners, ahead of Prince Ali and former FIFA deputy general secretary Jerome Champagne of France, with South African businessman Tokyo Sexwale the outsider.

“It's not a poisoned chalice, for me I see it as a privilege,” Champagne told Reuters.

"However, I recognise the difficulties, because if there is not a strong FIFA, football will be grabbed by a lot of people who have no interest in the game and want to use the game for other reasons - political, business or even criminal.”

(Reporting by Simon Evans; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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