Former French international midfielder and Uefa boss Michel Platini seems set to replace Sepp Blatter as Fifa boss in next February's election. Having global football finally run again by someone who once excelled on the pitch himself is a charming idea. However, Platini is not the right man. Fifa needs change, and change looks different.
Platini's endorsements by some of Blatter's biggest supporters, such as the notorious Asia football chief Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, highlight why he is the wrong man for serious reform. Meanwhile the fact that even some of Blatter's biggest opponents, including FA boss Greg Dyke, now put their hopes on Platini highlights the sorry state of global football. If Platini is football's only hope, then there is not that much hope at all.
Having been a member of Fifa's Executive Committee since 2002, Platini is far too closely associated with the organisation's past to shape its future. Most notably, he bears major responsibility for global football's worst decisions in decades. His role in awarding the world cup to Qatar raises questions that go far beyond whether a dictatorship with summer temperatures of up to 50 degrees is an adequate host.
In November 2010, Platini had a secret meeting with Nicholas Sarkozy, then president of France, and Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, then Qatari crown prince and the country's Emir since 2013. After this meeting, Platini dropped his support for the United States' bid and became Qatar's main cheerleader outside of Asia. His son Laurant Platini was later recruited as CEO of Burrda, a rapidly expanding Qatar-owned sports clothing brand. Qatari funds also bought the struggling club Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) and showered it with money. Since then, Sarkozy's favourite club has started to dominate the French Ligue 1 and became a serious contender for international titles again. Other major French-Qatari business transactions followed suit. The latest one is a $7billion arms deal with 24 Rafale warplanes at its core, a fighter jet France struggled to sell abroad for years.
Any serious investigation into the decision to award Qatar the 2018 world cup will at best be embarrassing for Platini. His interest in pushing it forward is thus going to be rather limited.
To make things worse, Platini and Blatter are rather similar in how they do business. Blatter's patronage network was based on sharing Fifa money with smaller countries' football associations, not looking too closely at how their officials used it and getting their votes in return. Meanwhile Platini pushed for bloating the European championship from 16 to 24 participating countries and for the introduction of the Nations League. While these moves are unlikely to lead to more attractive and exciting matches, they benefit small European football associations and helped Platini to increase his support base among them. By advocating to expand the world cup from 32 to 40 teams, Platini started to gather sympathies among smaller associations in the rest of the world as well.
"We have to clean here first" Blatter said in a recent press conference after an English comedian had showered him with fake dollar bills. He clearly missed the irony of his words.
However, cleaning up Fifa from the inside is unlikely to work. The question is not only whether Platini wants to substantially reform Fifa. The question is whether Fifa can be substantially reformed in the first place.
Any reform needs to be passed by the Fifa Congress, an assembly in which 209 member associations have one vote each. The tiny Caribbean island Montserrat with a population of 5,000 carries as much weight as China. With small associations concentrating a lot of power on a few functionaries, they are vulnerable to corruption. Moreover, they might be bribed rather cheaply.
Some African delegates' votes for Blatter's first election as Fifa president were allegedly bought with $50,000. His former ally Mohamed bin Hammam allegedly transferred up to $200,000 to the presidents of 30 African football associations to secure their support for the Qatari World Cup. When he ran for the Fifa presidency himself in 2011, his friend Jack Warner was caught on tape offering Caribbean delegates $40,000 per vote. These are small sums compared to the money involved in lobbying for bids, let alone organising world cups.
Beyond traditional bribes, those who control Fifa's funding for its member associations can also encourage specific voting behaviour. The Chinese football association is unlikely to be overly impressed by a few million dollars. However, the Montserrat Football Association and other smaller members probably are. They are also unlikely to face major scrutiny by local media on how they handle the funds they receive.
Hence the votes of those member associations most over-proportionally represented in the Fifa Congress are also most likely to be affected by either corruption or "encouragement" from the Fifa headquarters. At the same time, their officials benefit from the status quo and are therefore unlikely to support substantial reforms in the Fifa Congress.
Serious Fifa reform would require abandoning the "one country, one vote" principle and to replace it with a more proportional system of representation that factors in member associations' size and athletic relevance. However, such a move is unlikely to pass in the Fifa Congress unless it faces massive external pressure.
This pressure can only come from Europe. While the world's five leading football leagues only have five votes in the Fifa Congress, their potential influence is huge. It is time for them to make use of it.
Hardly any supporters would be interested in a Fifa World Cup without the main European national teams and without the global football elite that is largely signed by clubs in the main European leagues. Without them, the Fifa World Cup has no value to sponsors and television networks.
Prior to Blatter's re-election, various European officials raised the possibility of boycotting it. This is still a valid option. However, rather then merely boycotting Fifa, they could also launch an entirely new world football organization and host an alternative world cup. With all main European teams participating, such an event would easily secure lucrative television and sponsoring deals.
Organizing it would not be a big deal either. The 2018 edition could be played across Europe in the same mode as the Uefa European Championships in 2020. New stadiums or other large infrastructure projects would be unnecessary and venues are much closer to each other and much better connected than those venues envisaged in Russia. Such a world cup could be organized without the hosts being left with major debts. It could even serve as a blueprint for sustainable future world cups in other parts of the world.
Even if not all national football associations participated in such an alternative World Cup, it probably would not be less attractive than the last Fifa tournament. And few major national football teams would have an incentive to stick to Fifa. Because against the will of the five main European football leagues, hardly any of them could assemble a serious squad. These leagues' clubs could simply refuse to release their players for Fifa tournaments.
It is time for the main football associations to make use of their power and confront Fifa with a credible ultimatum: Immediate and drastic reforms, or the establishment of a new world football organisation and an alternative World Cup.
In addition to reforming Fifa's voting system, they should also insist on full cooperation with the authorities investigating the recent world cup awards. Finally, a larger share of the sponsoring and television revenues should be used to finance the world cup itself. The overall costs of organising it should be brought back to a level that makes sure that future editions can still be hosted by democratic countries where citizens have a say in how their taxes are used.
A credible threat might be sufficient to enforce major reform. Before deciding to run for the Fifa presidency, Platini had the pole position for such a move. His successor as UEFA boss, or indeed the main European football associations themselves could still go for it.
It is not likely to happen though. The football associations of France and Spain, whose leagues are highly dependent on Qatari money, even voted for Blatter's recent re-election. The others are unlikely to go ahead alone, particularly since some of their leading officials don't have entirely clean hands either.
Maybe any hopes for change are futile. Maybe all hopes rest on the shoulders of the US authorities investigating Fifa. Thanks to them at least Blatter is going to step down. Maybe further investigations will have similar drastic effects. Maybe the authorities of the only big country in which football never really caught on is going to be instrumental in saving it. A rather funny thought.