Meal vouchers and water feed FIFA jamboree as austerity bites
By Simon Evans
MIAMI (Reuters) - As the princes, sheikhs and diplomats who would rule world football filed into a Miami airport hotel it struck an incongruous tone, a world away from the opulent jamborees of popular myth.
There were no gilt thrones to hand, nor velvet curtains hanging heavy. Instead, a small group of around 50 men – the men who will help elect the next FIFA president - settled down in rows of cheap seating.
This was global football politics, austerity style.
With FIFA having suspended payments to CONCACAF, the governing body for football in North and Central America and the Caribbean, the delegates accustomed to a five-star life made do with meal vouchers and glasses of water in the lobby.
The champagne-fuelled days of life under former president Jeffrey Webb of the Cayman Islands, now facing charges of fraud, money laundering and racketeering conspiracy in the United States, must have seemed very far off.
Certainly, this extremely rare glimpse of life at the heart of football politics was an eye-opener. Not, though, for the reasons the select few journalists admitted to the normally sacrosanct chamber, had anticipated.
For decades, journalists have been locked out of the gatherings of FIFA - global football's governing body brought to its knees by corruption.
A total of 41 individuals and entities, including many former FIFA officials, have been charged with corruption-related offences in the United States. FIFA also faces a parallel Swiss investigation.
Its president Sepp Blatter was banned from football for eight years in December for ethics violations over a $2 million payment FIFA made to European football boss Michel Platini in 2011. Blatter, who says he has done nothing wrong, is appealing the ban.
Its last general secretary, second in seniority only to Blatter, was banned for 12 years on Friday for misconduct over the sale of World Cup tickets, abuse of travel expenses, attempting to sell TV rights below their market value and destruction of evidence.
Big sums, big stakes, big personalities.
You might expect gatherings of the kingmakers of the world's richest sport to be high-octane affairs.
And with America enthralled by the entertaining spectacle of a real presidential election campaign, it was impossible not to wonder if there might not be some of the same fireworks in Miami.
But Gianni Infantino is not Bernie Sanders and Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa is certainly no Donald Trump.
The first sign that this meeting of four of the five candidates for president might not be a drama of rhetoric, accusation and counter-accusation, came when Sheikh Salman took the podium behind that familiar foe of discourse -- the powerpoint presentation.
Sheikh Salman had been mistakenly introduced by a CONCACAF official as "The Crown Prince of Bahrain" but this was certainly more of an audience with the Sheikh than a debate.
Salman, like all the candidates, has been jetting around the world meeting voters, and he appeared tired as he read a dry, monotone speech.
But FIFA elections aren't won on public speaking skills -- if they were Frenchman Jerome Champagne would be favourite and not the outsider.
A former French diplomat, Champagne showed he had certainly absorbed plenty during his studies in the late 1970's at the elite Institute for Political Studies in Paris.
He hit his favoured theme - addressing the imbalances in football between rich and poor clubs and nations - early and hard but, speaking fluently without a script, he also offered some lines straight out of the playbook of 'real politics'.
"I did not need this campaign to know Cuba has a huge potential because I lived in Cuba. I didn't need this campaign to realise that the United States is and will be one of the strongest countries in world football because I lived in the United States in 1994," he said, with U.S football president Sunil Gulati and Cuban FA chief Luis Hernandez in the audience soaking up every word.
If Champagne offered worldly experience and egalitarian vision, Infantino brought things back to the more familiar terrain of FIFA politics - money.
"FIFA'S LAST CHANCE"
Infantino offered a massive boost in resources paid out from Zurich to the federations declaring "It is your money, FIFA's money is your money, the national associations' money" and promising that jobs in Zurich would be given to people from the region.
"Your people will be in the FIFA administration," he said.
There may have been echoes in those promises of Blatter's tried and tested electoral strategy but it was a well-delivered punchy message that will likely have done no harm to the shaven-headed Infantino, who has already won the backing of the seven Central American countries.
Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan played to a different sentiment, assuring the audience their confederation were not to blame for FIFA's crisis and were in fact "victims".
That raised some eyebrows, given the last three CONCACAF presidents have been indicted on various corruption charges by the U.S. Department of Justice, but before the delegates could feel too comfortable in their new-found victim status, Ali had veered dramatically to a doomsday scenario.
The election was "FIFA's last chance" he said, and the organisation could be wiped out if they chose, on February 26, the wrong man to lead them.
But just as the evening came to life with that apocalyptic prospect, it was all over and delegates shuffled off to the lobby and the bar.
There was a little fare for the conspiracy theorists as Champagne sat locked deep in intense conversation with Prince Ali on the first floor lobby while downstairs Sheikh Salman and Infantino, once rumoured to have cut a deal for this vote, relaxed in each other's company.
All very collegiate then but with several former colleagues awaiting trial, the corruption scandal is never far away from the minds of football officials in the region.
As if to underline that, but by pure coincidence, earlier in the day, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who has fronted the FIFA probe, was just a few miles away meeting with a Miami police department.
(Reporting By Simon Evans; editing by Ossian Shine and Ralph Boulton)