A week ago, FIFA elected a new president. Declan Hill was there to witness it.
Come inside the exclusive hotel that has witnessed many of the twists and turns in the battle to control international football: the five-star Baur au Lac in Zurich, Switzerland.
The rooms are priced at over $1,000 a night. Hanging over the lobby bar is a grand glass chandelier that twinkles with incandescent light; on the floor, there is a carpet so plush, you can feel yourself sinking into it.
The atmosphere is a combination of a high-society wedding and a John le Carre spy novel. A constant parade of super-rich executives, Middle Eastern aristocrats and glamorous ladies-who-lunch pass through the corridors, while the well-trained staff comforts the comfortable.
If the prosperous Swiss city of Zurich, packed with discreet private banks, expensive watch stores and designer clothing shops, is the spiritual home of the one-percenters, then Baur au Lac is their cathedral.
FIFA executives adopted this as their second home when there was a FIFA congress in Zurich. And it was here, during the last two FIFA congresses in May and December 2015, that Swiss police, motivated by the FBI, burst in at dawn to arrest dozens of FIFA executives.
And so it would be here at the Baur au Lac that Bleacher Report played onlooker to the covert three-day FIFA election that would crown Gianni Infantino as its new president.
There were two FIFA presidential elections happening in Zurich: the public one, with fine-sounding statements and pronouncements of public morality made by the five presidential candidates, and the covert one, conducted in intense lobbying sessions and in whispered conversations.
One of the presidential candidates told Bleacher Report in Zurich he saw no benefit in the public speeches: “I don’t understand. Of course, the private conversations are more important. You can say anything to anyone in a public speech.”
The stench of corruption, fraud and racketeering hung heavily in the air. The sheer number of FIFA executives convicted or indicted for corruption is daunting. Ostensibly, the FIFA election was about cleaning up the mess. In practice, much of it was spent with delegates looking over their shoulders, wondering if the FBI would be coming to take them away.
There was a game the FIFA delegates played as they drank coffee at the luxurious Baur au Lac. They tried to figure out which prominent delegates had not shown up because they feared being arrested. Presumably, those playing had a clear conscience or reason to believe they were safe.
This FIFA presidential election was about covert campaigning, geopolitics, arrests for racketeering, corruption, fraud and sex: It did not have much to do with football at all.
This is the inside story of how it unfolded.
Wednesday, February 24, 2 p.m.
Pierre Akel is an expert in Middle Eastern politics. Fluent in three languages, he writes and runs the influential Middle East Transparent website. Dressed in a beret and sporty overcoat, and clutching a pack of pungent cigarettes, he sat for hours in the lobby with Bleacher Report.
Akel came to Zurich to experience the power of international sport. A few months before, he worked as a translator in a legal case before the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Kuwaiti government. What he saw shocked him.
"It was incredible. One of the IOC representatives arrived and actually said, 'Let's hurry up. I've a plane to catch to a national politician of a powerful oil-rich country.’ I have never seen such arrogance before."
Akel is putting a microscope on the links between Middle Eastern political power and sport. The other man sitting at our table at Baur au Lac is the world's expert in this field: James Dorsey, a senior fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and author of an upcoming book titled The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
There is a lot for them to see. Three of the FIFA presidential candidates are in the room.
Jerome Champagne, the French diplomat-turned-FIFA-executive is canvassing, in Spanish, among a group of FIFA delegates from Latin America.
Prince Ali bin Al Hussein, a member of the Jordanian royal family and former military paratrooper, is talking quietly with his aides. Ali is in the midst of a legal challenge to ensure all voting by FIFA delegates is transparent yet secret. He has imported a collection of clear plastic voting booths to make this happen.
Tokyo Sexwale is the South African businessman who was Nelson Mandela’s cellmate in the notorious Robben Island prison during the 1980s. He has come a long way since then. He is looking around the Baur au Lac bar while he drinks tea and chats with his aides
Akel and Dorsey pay little attention to these men. Their attention is focused on a FIFA executive who looks like a cross between a Hugo Boss model and a WWE wrestler. His name is Sheikh Ahmad Al-Sabah of Kuwait, the kingmaker.
If Al-Sabah were a character from the TV series Game of Thrones, he would be Lord Varys, the man behind the scenes who is reputed to wield the power.
Al-Sabah cuts a muscular figure, dressed in a designer suit with his dark hair gathered in a ponytail. He is charming and charismatic. As he works the lobby bar, there is a lot of hugging. He greets almost every FIFA delegate with an embrace, followed by an intense conversation.
Akel and Dorsey offer a stream of stories about Al-Sabah. He is president of the Olympic Council of Asia, but in an internecine Kuwaiti feud, Al-Sabah has been sued by his own government after the Kuwaiti government was banned from international sport by both the IOC and FIFA.
What makes the two Middle Eastern experts so concerned is that the kingmaker is said to be supporting controversial FIFA presidential candidate Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa.
The controversy around Sheikh Salman is largely about his alleged role in the suppression of the Arab Spring pro-democracy protests in his native Bahrain.
The allegations, from respected non-governmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch, are that Salman was in charge of a committee specifically formed to identify athletes and sportspeople to detain and torture. At the time, Salman was the president of the Bahrain Football Association, and he has vehemently denied these charges.
However, what is not in doubt is that at least three national-team players were arrested at that time for trying to lead a protest for democracy and that Sheikh Salman did not publicly call for their release. The Times (h/t The Australian) reported the players were tortured while imprisoned.
"The very least Sheikh Salman could have done was denounce the fact that the players on the national team had been tortured," Dorsey says. “This is not a man to be the president of FIFA.”
Yet on this Wednesday afternoon, in the shade of the Alps, many of the delegates say Salman is leading among the 207 voting nations. Nobody Bleacher Report asks thinks the other four FIFA presidential candidates can catch Salman.
At this point, Salman has the public commitment of two of FIFA’s largest confederations, Asia and Africa, with 47 and 56 votes, respectively (103 total). His closest rival, Infantino, has the public support of two others: Latin America and Europe—with 10 and 54 votes respectively (64).
But here’s the twist: No one expects all countries will follow their confederation orders. There is talk that confederations are asking delegates to take photos of their ballots, thus guaranteeing they have delivered on their promises. This is the reason why Prince Ali asked for clear plastic voting booths and FIFA have banned mobile phones from the booths.
Even taking into account this deviation, everybody has Salman far ahead of anyone else. This is the man everybody expects to be FIFA president.
Thursday, February 25, 2016
The FIFA African delegate wore sneakers, a cheap brown suit and a nervous expression. Amid the luxury of Baur au Lac, he looks completely out of place. It is easy to feel sympathetic.
The awkwardness of a teenage school dance permeates the hotel. With the exception of the great mixers such as Ahmad Al-Sabah, the various nations and cultures are grouped together in different parts of the room and not speaking to each other.
Ghosts are everywhere. The absent are men who have been deemed corrupt or too much of a threat to FIFA’s reputation. One of these ghosts, in the latter category, is the award-winning British journalist Andrew Jennings.
Jennings is a perpetual troublemaker in the best possible way. Usually dressed in cotton trousers, a shirt and a safari vest, he typically sits in the back of a conference hall or luxury hotel full of journalists. If they say anything mealy-mouthed, Jennings will stand up, roll his eyes and say something like, “Oh, for f--k’s sake! FIFA is full of mafia t--ts.”
Based on the arrests and convictions of FIFA officials, it seems the FBI and U.S. Department of Justice agree with Jennings’ forthright opinions. They consulted with him during their initial investigation, and Jennings has even testified before U.S. Congress on FIFA corruption.
One of Jennings' favourite things to do is to stand outside Baur au Lac asking tough questions of FIFA delegates. Jack Warner, the former president of CONCACAF, currently indicted by U.S. authorities for alleged corruption, once famously said he would have spat on Jennings.
Yet at this FIFA presidential election, Jennings is not here.
Jennings’ absence is particularly striking because this week the British Sports Journalists’ Association had its awards night. For the 10th year in a row, the regular sports journalists somehow managed to miss giving an award to the most internationally recognized member of their community. It seems FIFA officials were not the only people upset by Jennings’ forthright manner.
Another ghost in the room is Michel Platini, the former president of UEFA who was banned from football for six years for breaching FIFA ethics in the form of an alleged $2 million payment he accepted from former FIFA President Sepp Blatter.
Just a few months ago, Platini was the obvious next president of FIFA. Now it appears his career is over.
"Michel Platini is now finished. It is time for him to go," a senior European football official tells Bleacher Report.
“What he is fighting for now is his reputation. Platini doesn’t think it is fair that if he wants to accept a directorship of St. Etienne [a French football club where Platini played for many years], FIFA will prevent him from doing this, so this is why he is appealing all the bans.”
The UEFA officials have little faith their man Infantino will beat Salman to become president. One of them is convinced, however, by a conspiracy theory doing the rounds at the hotel. The story goes that rich American investors are going to build a new football league.
"The Americans wanted to invest in a new European superleague to replace FIFA. This was the real reason behind the American police investigation of FIFA.”
It is a long and complicated theory, and the other UEFA officials are quick to denounce it. What they do not deny is that if Salman wins, they may begin to support the plan by a German former-player-turned-businessman to build a European superleague and effectively cut ties with FIFA.
Blatter is the biggest ghost of all.
The man who helped build FIFA into one of the most successful sports organisations in the world has been banished from the sport he loves. While at Baur au Lac, the news came that the FIFA ethics committee had reduced Blatter’s suspension from eight years to six. For a man who is already 79 years old, it is still—almost—a life sentence.
Bleacher Report went to see Blatter. After a series of negotiations with various aides, there was a brief meeting at Sonnenberg, the expensive restaurant built on the site of the former FIFA headquarters overlooking Zurich.
Climbing up to the venue is to elevate two climatic layers and several million Swiss francs in real estate value. At the Baur au Lac on the lakeside front, rain was falling. During the drive up the steep hill, it began to snow, with a thin layer of white covering the vineyards that grow all around the restaurant.
Sonnenberg has a stunning view of downtown Zurich and the ski hills around it. Blatter emerges in a dark blue shirt. The last time the public saw him was in a privately arranged press conference in December. He had a large plaster on his face and seemed ill at ease.
Today, he looks older. There is an inch of space around the collar of his shirt. We shake hands.
"Yes, I remember you," says Blatter, referring to a long interview we had about match-fixing in football and at the FIFA World Cup.
There is some confusion about media logistics and promised exclusives. We agree to speak after the election. Blatter turns away, then returns to shake hands again, saying, “you’re a highly correct man.”
Thursday, February 25, evening—Kameha Grand Zurich
The Kameha Grand Zurich hotel describes itself as a “modern-day sanctuary.” It is here that many of the African FIFA delegations have chosen to stay. Le Matin, the Swiss daily newspaper, reports there are a number of "photographers" who are in charge of distributing brown envelopes full of cash: one payment to be received by the delegates before the vote; another after the successful conclusion of the election.
"We have received information that on Thursday we are studying," the newspaper reports. Roman Geiser, spokesman for the FIFA investigative chamber of the ethics committee, confirms they have received complaints but that no more information will be given out.
Thursday, February 25, midnight—Baur au Lac
The weary FIFA delegates and candidates stagger into the lobby. It has been a long campaign of thousands of miles. It is now almost over.
Champagne, the diplomat-turned-FIFA-presidential-candidate, comes into the hotel with one of his aides. He shrugs when asked how his chances are and says, “I have fought an honest, principled fight. There are others who have not, but I fought this election the right way."
Champagne is not the only presidential candidate who seems exhausted. Prince Ali of Jordan has just gone to bed looking as if he had stepped on a rake.
A worried-looking Infantino and Sexwale sit together in the lounge. They talk quietly. Bleacher Report goes over. They joke about the absence of hair follicles among them.
Both men are pleasant, but neither seems particularly confident that Infantino will win.
Bleacher Report: Who do you think will win tomorrow’s election?
Infantino: Me, of course! First round. Second round at most. No, I am only joking. I have no idea. I have done everything I could, but I really don’t know how it will go tomorrow.
Sexwale: He came to see me in South Africa. We went to Robben Island. Make sure you put that in your story. This man is a great man.
The discussion between the two men goes on for a number of hours—intense and complicated. Le Matin claims this conversation was one of the key moments to explain the election. The cementing of a relationship between the men that would only become clear the next day in the inside of the FIFA election.
Friday, February 26, 2016—FIFA election day, 6:15 a.m.
The last of the ghosts of FIFA's past at Baur au Lac are the FBI and the Swiss police. Their presence has been felt all week, as the fear of more arrests looms large.
Almost every FIFA delegate, including most of the FIFA presidential candidates, thought Salman would win if the police did not raid the hotel again. Some FIFA candidates even expressed hope that the police would come bursting through the door.
Bleacher Report went down in the predawn darkness every morning to check if the police were coming to the hotel. Each day, there was a larger crowd of media across the street. This morning, I was still in a bathrobe and slippers, over a T-shirt and shorts.
The receptionist, immaculate in a bow tie and suit, came running out: "Stop, monsieur, stop. Please do not embarrass the hotel. The journalists will see you like that and take photos. It will make the Baur au Lac look bad."
It was not clear whether he objected to this reporter’s lack of physical appeal or the Baur au Lac bathrobe being displayed to the sporting paparazzi. However, it is difficult to argue with someone who is so genuinely distressed at the idea of you as a representative for his hotel.
Most of the staff at the Baur au Lac get where they stand in this battle. Last June, when the arrests of the FIFA executives occurred, the staff marched out holding bedsheets so that the arrestees—several of whom have now pleaded guilty to multimillion-dollar racketeering charges—did not have to do the "perp walk" before the international media.
In the end, the FBI did not come bursting in the front door of the luxury hotel to arrest FIFA executives. The election would go ahead as planned, and most people expected Sheikh Salman of Bahrain to win easily.
Friday, February 26, 2016—FIFA election day, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The FIFA election itself is held at the large multipurpose Hallenstadion arena in the suburbs of Zurich.
There is an air of carnival on the streets outside. A middle-aged American follower of Dada absurdist theatre (it was invented in Zurich) stands on the curb with a large sign saying, “Make FIFA Great Again! Vote Trump!”
Next to him stand Bahraini protesters. In front of them are signs with photos of dozens of torture victims allegedly connected to the Arab Spring protests of 2011. They were screaming out against Salman.
“If FIFA elects Salman, it will be as if they’re trying to commit corporate suicide,” says Sayed Alwadaei, a Bahraini human rights activist who was the group’s spokesperson. “He is a man with blood on his hands who will kill the credibility of FIFA.”
The theatre inside the arena is Game of Thrones stuff, minus the swords and dead bodies. When the speeches and voting begin, Sexwale stands up, delivers a barnstorming speech and announces that at 62 years old, he will be a father again. He says everyone is welcome to the party and, by the way, he is resigning from the FIFA presidential election.
The candidates who chose to stay in the race follow, but their speeches lack Sexwale’s off-the-wall firepower. The one exception is Infantino. He speaks in five different languages and receives sustained applause when he says, “It is not FIFA's money; it is your money.”
Then begins a long, tedious round of voting where each country is called up individually.
After two hours, the first ballot ends, and the results are announced. Jerome Champagne received seven votes, Prince Ali of Jordan 27, Salman 85 and Infantino 88. Cue immediate shock and surprise among delegates.
This was not supposed to happen. Salman was supposed to win easily. What had happened to his blocks of votes from Asia and Africa?
The tension and incomprehension among the delegates are apparent. This is when the American charge begins—the one that will change the election and stop the idea of American decline. This is the moment FIFA found its new kingmaker.
Sunil Gulati of the U.S. Soccer Federation, who had backed Prince Ali of Jordan in the first round, comes across the room and very publicly shakes Infantino’s hand. According to one of the other presidential candidates in an exclusive interview with Bleacher Report and the New York Times, this heavily influenced what happened next.
In the previous days, Gulati, who had been warning his fellow CONCACAF delegates about the dangers of voting for Salman, went into full flesh-pressing mode. Circling the room like a human magnet, Gulati approached CONCACAF delegates and engaged in urgent conversations.
Salman's supporters, in contrast, seemed utterly surprised. Their best-laid plans had gone awry.
A second tedious round of voting and counting reveals, to everyone’s surprise, that Infantino has won an overwhelming number of the undecided delegates. Almost all of Prince Ali’s delegates, swayed by the American influence, have chosen to vote for Infantino, giving him the win with 115 votes to Sheikh Salman’s 88.
Infantino stood in front of the FIFA delegates with his hand on his heart, obviously moved, and promised to build a new FIFA.