In an extraordinary gesture from normally imperial and aloof FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who quite literally sees himself as the equivalent of a head of state, he suddenly appeared yesterday in one of the press lounges in the swanky, luxurious FIFA headquarters in Zurich.
Media representatives, stunned to see the old boy make an unscheduled and unstaffed appearance, proceeded to be rendered speechless when he told them that "It seems obvious that there will be a candidate from Asia" running for his position in the elections later this year.
Blatter and Bin Hammam
Blatters' appearance followed close on the heels of the statement made earlier in the day - from Seoul, Korea (which matters here - stay with me) - by Asian Football Confederation President Mohamed bin Hammam that he intends to introduce a proposal at the March ExCo meeting that FIFA presidents be limited to two terms in office.
(Note that Blatter was first elected in 1998, and that his candidacy this year is for a fourth term)
While the proposal would be in effect only for future presidencies and thus have no regulatory effect on Blatter, it is clearly a statement of a principle which bin Hammam wants the members to accept immediately and, whats more, despite his assurances that there are "other candidates" he made very little effort to hide that he sees himself as taking Blatters' job, and doing it starting in 2011.
Of course it also makes the pledge that, if he is elected, he'll only serve for eight years.
On the face of it, it's a simple case of one guy wanting another guy's job but, given that this is FIFA we're talking about, nothing at all is as it seems, and at the end of the day this could very well mean big trouble for the USSF World Cup bid.
Mohamed bin Hammam has been a loyal Sepp Blatter ally for many years.
Back in 1998 when Sepp was running for the FIFA Presidency and was getting a strong challenge from UEFA President Lennart Johansson, bin Hammam, then the President of the Qatari Federation, was quite literally Blatters' bag man.
One delegate who declined to be bribed was Somalias' Farah Addo (the CAF had collectively agreed to vote for Johansson). He later described how he was approached in a sworn statement:
"I have a friend who you know, who wants to offer you $100,000 to switch your vote. Half cash and the rest in sports equipment. They would send the cash or I would go to the Gulf State to collect it."
Addo rejected the offer, choosing to honor his promise to his fellow African nations. But when he arrived in Paris for the Congress he discovered, to his astonishment, that he had not been accredited for the election, and his place taken by another Somali official who had pledged his vote to Blatter.
Two months later, at an extraordinary Congress called by the Somalia Association, two officials admitted they that they had taken a $10,000 bribe to forge a letter taking Addo’s vote away from him. One of them, Hassan Ali, a vice-president of the Somalia Federation, signed a statement to the effect that he took the money in return for allocating Somalia’s vote to Sepp Blatter.
The money was handed to him by Mohamed Bin Hammam
It was said at the time that bin Hammam had funneled $US 5 million for Blatters' election, a claim he vehemently denied, saying that it was only about $50,000 (as if there was some acceptable level of bribery) but he does admit to paying Hasan to forge the letter.
Addo further testified:
"The night before the election, I saw people lining up in Le Meridien Hotel to receive money. Some of these people told me they got $ 5,000 before the vote and the same next day"(after Blatter won).
"I made my own inquiries and discovered that 18 had gone over to Blatter"
Let it be noted that if the 18 bin Hamman-bribed members of CAF had not changed their votes to Blatter, Lennart Johansson would have been elected President of FIFA.
And when Blatter ran for re-election in 2002, bin Hammam was the man assigned to sign up voters in return for $400,000 "development grants". Tiny nations like Monserrat quicly signed on, although subsequent "development" is hard to discern.
And since Sepp Blatter is nothing if not loyal, in the way all true mobsters are, bin Hammam was elected - with substantial help and arm twisting from Blatter - President of the Asian Football Confederation the following year.
Which election, of course, allowed him to proceed, very Jack Warner-like, to engage in, yes, World Cup TICKET SCALPING, among other things.
Fast forward to last Spring when bin Hammam, having apparently tired of Malaysian hospitality, decided to move the AFC headquarters to his home country of Qatar.
Since the AFC has always had to strike a careful balance between Asian and Middle Eastern interests, this proposal was met with dismay in far eastern football circles, who put up their own candidate for the FIFA Executive Committee position from the AFC, one Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al Khalifa of Bahrain (yes, he too is middle Eastern, but they already had the Asian votes; they needed an agreeable Muslim Arab to pry some votes out of the Gulf States and also to convince them that this wasn't all just an Asian power play).
Thus ensued perhaps the ugliest election FIFA has ever seen, complete with rampant bribery and accusations of criminality, all of which culminated in bin Hammam telling reporters that he was going to "chop off the head" of the President of the Korean Football Federation.
He later said that was, you know, just an "expression", but a number of people commented that a Muslim Arab really ought to choose his "expressions" a bit more carefully.
It got so ugly that even Blatter was appalled, and he ordered everyone to play nice or else. Then he sent his prized, world class fixer and hatchetman, the appalling Peter Hargitay, to run a despicable smear campaign on Bin Hammans' behalf.
Bin Hamman, who began the campaign with almost no supporters, won re-election by a vote of 17-15
Interestingly, in the months before the election, bin Hammam, confident in his position, had been making noises about how his old pal Sepp "ought to consider" that maybe it was time for him to step down, and making no secret of the fact that he saw himself as a prime candidate to take his place.
But when the whole election thing blew up, he backed off, announced that he would of course never, ever run against his "dear, dear friend" Sepp, and that he had offered the man his "eternal loyalty".
So last Fall, when Blatter began hinting that his "mission" is not complete and he, of course, needs a fourth term in office to "complete" it, there was no one on the horizon who looked likely to offer a serious challenge. Bin Hamman had been tamed and Jack Warner is simply too tainted even for FIFA (and anyway, the opportunities for open theft are much greater where he is).
The only possible challenger (pay attention here) would be UEFA President Michael Platini, who acts like he's not really interested, which is an excellent stance. Blatter is not a man it pays to challenge openly.
Then came the fateful Robbin Island meeting in December, where the Executive Committee met two days prior to the World Cup draw to deal with several administrative matters and, out of nowhere, a 100,000 megaton bomb dropped on Sepp Blatters' world.
The tickets weren't selling. Sponsors - the biggest source of money - are getting restless, even hostile. $30 million in missing funds from the U17 tournament in Nigeria. South African hotels and air fares have been jacked up by tour companies desperate to make back the enormous fees FIFA charged them for the privilege of being official agents. Blatter's nephew was awarded the TV contracts. On and on it went.
It was widely reported that Blatter was "visibly shaken" afterwards. His only official response, however, was to fire than man whom many considered "the last honest man in FIFA, deputy general secretary Jerome Champagne. FIFAs' spinners gave the media lurid tales of Champagne building a power base in order to challenge Blatter for the Presidency, an accusation so ludicrous that it was hard even to repeat with a straight face.
What Champagne had done was worse: he let the federations look at the books.
Blatter has seemed increasingly desperate ever since. His ridiculous comments about how Latin American players don't care about teammates sleeping with their wives aside, he's begun engaging in angry, even frantic tirades accusing people who want to mention the problems in South Africa as "colonialists" and "racists".
And it's become apparent that unless South Africa, which was Blatters' brainchild from the very beginning, is an enormous success on a scale that is now almost impossible to conceive, when it comes time to vote for the Presidency he won't have a freind in the building.
Which brings us back to Bin Hammam:
The key to understanding what happened is not in his words; they're vague enough to mean anything.
Rather, the key was in the two guys sitting next to him, grinning ear to ear: Sheikh Salmon and Korea’s FIFA VP Chung Mong-joon who is, not coincidentally, the CEO and largest shareholder of Hyundai Heavy Industries, a man who told reporters less than 12 months ago that bin Hammam was "a serious criminal" who "probably needed hospitalization" for "mental problems".
The same man who bin Hammam was threatening to dismember just last Spring.
Bottom line: AFC is united. They're 100% behind Bin Hammam. They've got votes, they've got money and they're coming after Blatter.
Oh, and in case you're missing the man behind the curtain here: Bin Hammam is a long time, very close personal friend of Peter Lowy, the Australian billionaire who is head of Australias' World Cup bid.
Any of these dots starting to connect for you?
Which explains why Blatter is now pushing for one of next two World Cups to be held in Europe in return for European support. Some people say the deal with Platini has already been cut.
So if we do the math here, we have two World Cups being awarded: if Europe (read: England) gets one and Australia gets the other, which one does the US get again?
Oh. I see.
What about Warner and CONCACAF?
Well, as Andrew Jennings brilliantly out it recently:
"The North American and Caribbean franchise, tightly controlled by the bubble-bearded Fatman, with his homes in Trump Tower, Paradise Beach in Nassau and the farm in Lenior, North Carolina, and his gold-encrusted partner in crime from Trinidad have been given freedom by (Blatter) to misbehave as they wished."
But without Blatters' protection, he predicts:
"...life bans on them and suspension of 35 subservient nations pending forensic audits"
On the other hand, earlier this week Dr. Chung, purportedly moved by the scenes of devastation in Haiti, decided to send a contribution.
Did he send it to the Red Cross? UNICEF? Doctors Without Borders?
No, he "entrusted" Jack Warner with his $500,000, saying that Warner would know where it would do the most good.
And we all know where Warner thinks a half million bucks will do the most good.
There's a new wind blowing and I for one would gladly, eagerly, lose a US World Cup if it means this swamp full of snakes and thieves gets cleaned out.
Watch carefully: this is going to get interesting.