Fear and Loathing in Zurich: Showdown at the Baur du Lac

As the leaders of international football begin trickling in to FIFA's favorite five star hotel in preparation for Friday's balloting, one question is uppermost in everyone's minds.

No, not who will succeed Sepp Blatter as President of FIFA. In the end, business will go on as usual whether the Bahraini human rights abuser or the smug Swiss con artist ends up getting the job.

Rather, the real question is whether the US Department of Justice and the Swiss Federal Police are poised to make a third mass roundup of soccer officials at the Baur du Lac hotel on Friday morning.

Think I'm kidding? Bookies in Britain are taking bets on this very question. No word on whether they're offering an over/under.

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If you have ever wondered just how it is that FIFA officials force the various delegates they have bribed and/or threatened to vote the way they've been told to, well, wonder no more.

As you may know, FIFA has a sophisticated electronic voting system in the Congress hall, which is used for most of the required routine voting on rule changes and such.

However, in order to shield the voters from intimidation during elections, FIFA uses paper ballots. As you doubtless recall from last May's voting, each federation is called to send a representative into a private booth to mark his ballot in total secrecy.

Or not.

It seems that just before sealing the envelope, many voters are ordered to take a cell phone photo of their completed ballot in order to prove that they did what they promised and/or were instructed to do by their regional leader like, say, African Confederation President (and acting FIFA President) Issa Hayatou and Asian Confederation President (and candidate in tomorrow's election) Sheikh Salmon.

To pick a couple of examples entirely at random.

For this reason, current long shot Prince Ali of Jordan actually had some glass-enclosed voting booths built, and they were flown into Zurich on Wednesday. (It's good to be a prince). He also demanded the employment of "independent scrutineers" (which, incidentally, is a great name for a rock band) to keep an eye on in-booth activities.

Even-longer-shot Jerome Champagne joined in the request. Insanely-long-not-a-chance-in-hell-shot Tokyo Sexwale was unavailable for comment.

FIFA refused, but agreed to tell everyone not to carry cellphones into the booths. However, since they're not about to pat the voters down or run them through metal detectors, nobody really believes this will have much effect.

The Prince took his complaint to the Court of Arbitration for Sport on Tuesday asking, among other things, that they order the entire balloting process suspended pending a full hearing.

The court refused to intervene.

By now you've probably heard that FIFA's Appeals Committee voted to reduce the 8 year suspensions handed out to both Blatter and Michel Platini down to 6 years.

The reason they cited was as a reward "for past services rendered to FIFA".

It was something of a surprise, but FIFA is still FIFA, although the speculation is that they are a little worried about how the CAS, where the case is headed next, will view the seriousness of the matter.

Put another way, they reduced it to six to try and prevent the CAS from reducing it to two.

The biggest problem is that while everyone is reasonably confident that the payment was a bribe, there isn't one shred of evidence to substantiate that assumption. As it is, all they have is the "disloyal payment" thing (a Swiss legal term with no exact analogue in US law but basically means that you had a fiduciary responsibility to your employer and you breached it) may not be enough to warrant a Draconian punishment.

Since the whole point was to get Blatter out of there and keep Platini from running, the length of the suspension is relatively immaterial anyway.

In another fun revelation from Zurich this week, it was discovered that FIFA, like CONCACAF (as mentioned in this space a couple days ago) is officially considered by the US Dept, of Justice to be a "victim" of individual corruption rather than an institutional perpetrator.

FIFA has hired a powerful and politically connected US law firm to advise them on how they can cooperate with Sweet Loretta's people in their investigation so as not to make the DoJ change its mind on the subject.

As a result, stuff like the way this election is being conducted and the reduction of Blatter's suspension will be looked at very closely. Any sign of FIFA smoke screens, lack of cooperation or general insincerity about about reform risks having the US turn their guns directly on FIFA itself.

A thought which scares them silly.

Which is why Friday morning's vote on the proposed FIFA "reforms" is so crucial, and make no mistake: the result is in serious doubt.

Roughly speaking, 50% of the FIFA federations are on the "minnow" list, if you will. That is to say that they mostly like the way Sepp ran things, they like the perks, the committee assignments, the lux travel and accommodations and, of course, the unmonitored money which flows like water to those who toe the line.

Unfortunately, the changes they'll be voting on tomorrow require a 3/4 majority and nobody is wildly confident that they can get there. FIFA has staff people frantically working the hotels and meeting rooms, twisting arms, pleading, cajoling, even threatening.

Their sales pitch largely consists of "Look, you may not like some of this stuff, but you're going to like having US and Swiss authorities freeze our assets even less. This isn't (fill in third-world crap hole country), where you can do whatever you want as long as you drop the occasional bag of cash off at the Presidential palace. These people are sharks and they'll eat us all alive".

To you and I, the "reforms" are a mixed bag of mostly unadulterated garbage like "background checks" (which Jack Warner, Chuck Blazer and pretty much everyone else would have sailed through), and letting everyone know how much ExCo members make, won't change a thing.

Some of the others, like having to account for where GOAL grant money actually goes as opposed to letting the locals buy swamp land from their cousins and hire consultants who never show up for work, is a bit more problematical, but that's going to happen sooner or later whether they like it or not.

It'll be interesting to see what happens, but the betting is that the Confederation Presidents can strong arm most of the delegates into signing on.

One other result of nervousness over running afoul of the US DoJ is that FIFA has demanded that each of the candidates submit a copy of the victory speech they will give if they are elected.

They have also given the candidates a list of approved answers to questions they expect will be asked at the post-voting media conference.

Is this the weirdest election ever or what?

As mentioned previously, the first major piece of drama tomorrow will be whether Sepp Blatter shows up at the door demanding to be heard, as he has promised to do.

FIFA will unquestionably do the Black Rod at the House of Commons bit, which is appropriate since Sepp has always considered himself to be a king, although I'm not sure those sleek glass-and-chrome sliding doors will slam all that well.

In other Blatter News, word came out this week that Seppy's not-at-all-anticipated autobiography, which was apparently scheduled for release this week, has been held by the publisher.

As a result, you're just going to have to wait another couple of monthsto curl up in front of a crackling fire with a nice bottle of red and your copy of "Sepp Blatter: Mission Football".

The publisher says they want to be able to incorporate the results of tomorrow's Congress in the book which, he promises, will lay out how "Despite the success, Blatter always had to endure harsh criticism and prejudices.

"In this richly illustrated book Sepp Blatter tells how he learnt (sic) to evade these hostilities."

I wish to God I was making this up.

Despite mighty efforts by FIFA, who desperately wanted all 209 member nations present and voting, neither Indonesia nor Kuwait will be in their seats when Issa Hayatou calls the Congress to order.

In both nations, the government has stuck their noses into footballing affairs to an extent that the organization simply can't abide.

In our region, both Honduras and Guatemala had similar issues but FIFA has supposedly resolved those cases at the last minute, bringing the total number of voters to 207.