Asian football chief plans to challenge Sepp Blatter for world football presidency in June.
|Grant Wahl stated his credentials in an interview with Al Jazeera this month [Al Jazeera]|
Last week’s UEFA Congress in Paris saw Sepp Blatter and Mohamed Bin Hamman doing their best to avoid each other in the corridors of the Hilton Arc de Triomphe ahead of their battle for the FIFA presidency on June 1.
Another candidate lobbying for support was an American sports journalist hoping to make an audacious bid for football’s top job.
With his shaven head, neat appearance and ready smile, 37-year-old Grant Wahl looks more like a friendly schoolteacher than a potential powerbroker.
His day job is senior writer for American magazine Sports Illustrated but Wahl is probably best known for writing ‘The Beckham Experiment’, a controversial biography two years ago about David Beckham’s arrival in the United States.
“As president I will do a WikiLeaks on FIFA, releasing every internal document to the public so that we can find out how clean or unclean FIFA really is”
Grant Wahl, prospective FIFA presidential candidate
Wahl never played professional football nor has he held any serious administrative position.
However, the Baltimore, Maryland resident wants to run as the peoples’ candidate to implement changes, which he says need to be urgently made to the world governing body.
With a cheeky slogan of ‘Cure the Blatter infection’, Wahl is happy to paint himself as the rebellious outsider.
In Paris, Blatter and bin Hammam were riding in separate luxury Mercedes to the Grand Palais as Michel Platini won a second four-year term as UEFA President, while Wahl was slumming it in the Metro.
He’d flown to the French capital in economy class, sitting in the middle seat in the back row on a red-eye flight.
“I travel around the world covering football, and wherever I go the fans complain about FIFA because they don’t think it’s a clean organisation,” Wahl said.
“So I decided to do something about it by running for FIFA president.
“It’s time to start changing the culture from a club made up entirely of old men. For a start, I would name a woman as general secretary and support some common-sense changes.”
Among Wahl’s other proposals: video-replays for close calls on the goal line, a US-presidential style two-term limit for the FIFA president (including himself) and making referees explain their decisions after games.
To take the next step in his candidacy, Wahl needs one of FIFA’s 208 member associations to endorse him by the April 1 deadline.
|Blatter has been FIFA president since 1998 [Reuters]|
If that happens, the reporter who covered college basketball for 14 years before concentrating on football, will prove that his brazen bid is more than just an April Fool’s joke.
“In Paris I had several meetings, including one with a top official from a World Cup-winning FA,” he said.
“There has been interest, but no nomination yet. I have contacted around 150 FAs so far and will be contacting more.”
Indeed Wahl is heartened by the fact that three of FIFA’s previous eight presidents dating back more than a century, including the incumbant Blatter, had also worked as sports journalists.
Support for the Princeton University graduate is growing.
Don Garber, the commissioner of Major League Soccer, joined USA national team players Jozy Altidore and Maurice Edu in giving his stamp of approval because “I’ve had my fill of FIFA politics”.
His official Facebook page now has almost 3,000 fans, with a similar number signing a petition on Twitter in support.
Among those to also vouch for Wahl’s bid include Canada’s two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash, Cincinatti Bengals’ NFL player Chad Ochocinco and TV star Drew Carey.
When Asian Football Confederation (AFC) boss Bin Hammam announced his candidacy, Wahl was at his Maryland home, following through the night via internet streaming.
Although the Qatari is campaigning on a platform of change and greater visibility, Wahl isn’t convinced.
“Both Bin Hammam and Blatter are FIFA insiders who have been inside the organisation for many years, and both men say they are certain that FIFA is not corrupt,” Wahl said.
“Seriously? How can we be certain of that?
“That’s why I want to open an investigation on FIFA when I’m FIFA president.
“If Blatter and Bin Hammam are so certain FIFA is clean, then they should welcome that too.”
Citing last December’s voting for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, Wahl believes the corruption in football’s corridors of power has got out of hand.
Before Qatar was controversially awarded the right to host the 2022 tournament after beating the United States in the final round of voting, two members of FIFA’s executive committee were found guilty of accepting bribes from undercover reporters.
“Blatter even himself admits that FIFA’s reputation has been tarnished under his watch,” Wahl said.
“As the ultimate outsider I’ll bring FIFA into the 21st century by enacting the reforms no apparatchik in the old boy network would dare propose.
“As president I will do a WikiLeaks on FIFA, releasing every internal document to the public so that we can find out how clean or unclean FIFA really is.
“At the moment, FIFA has as much transparency and credibility as the Mubarak regime did.”
Few people in the sporting mainstream are taking this rebel seriously and some dismiss his campaign as a publicity stunt.
A light-hearted YouTube campaign video shows Wahl drumming up support outside the Sports Illustrated offices in New York City, introducing himself and shaking the hands of bemused passersby.
“You’re running for who?” one woman asks in the heart of New York Yankees country.
The tone is tongue-in-cheek but Wahl’s intention seems deadly serious.
For a start, he says it’s simply not right that the course of his entire life has seen only two FIFA presidents: Joao Havelange (1974-1998) and Sepp Blatter (1998-present).
“Humour and satire are two of the most powerful weapons we have as human beings so I want people to have a sense of humour about my campaign because I know I’m not a typical candidate,” he said.
“But it is also important to know that I’m not joking about wanting major reforms in FIFA.”
So what will Wahl do if no member association nominates him by the April 1 deadline? And how difficult will it be to go back to his day job writing articles about Major League Soccer and Team USA’s bid to qualify for their seventh straight World Cup?
“If I don’t get the nomination, it won’t be for a lack of trying, and it would prove that the world’s FAs don’t listen to the fans, who would vote for me over Blatter and Bin Hammam in a heartbeat,” he said.
“But I’d have no problem returning to full-time journalism. I get paid to travel the world covering football. There’s no way I would ever complain about that.”
Jason Dasey (www.jasondasey.com) is an Asia-based international broadcaster, corporate emcee and media trainer. This column first appeared in the South China Morning Post on March 26.
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