What happened when I ran for FIFA president (cont.)
"Did anyone think you were joking or that you were a madman?"
-- interview question from the Shanghai Morning Post
I decided to run for FIFA president one night in January. Wherever I go around the world covering soccer, the fans complain about Blatter and FIFA, saying the organization isn't clean, that the two FIFA executive committee members suspended for trying to sell their World Cup votes last year might well be the tip of a rotten iceberg. If that was the case, I found it strange that Blatter had no challenger in the 2007 FIFA election and none in January 2011 either. It's one thing to complain about FIFA, but it's another to actually do something. So one night the idea came: Can anyone run for FIFA president? Could I?
I bolted out of bed, turned on my laptop and spent the next three hours doing research. On FIFA's website, I learned that anyone can announce their candidacy for FIFA president; you just have to be nominated by one of the world's federations. I studied the writer Norman Mailer's campaign for mayor of New York City in 1969, noting his efforts to show that he was unconventional and somewhat satirical but still serious about enacting major reforms. (Mailer ended up getting 41,000 votes.) And I read up on the history of FIFA's eight presidents, three of whom had worked at one point as sports journalists. I brought up the idea with my editors at Sports Illustrated, and they told me to go for it.
After showing them the column announcing my candidacy, I visited SI's main office in New York, where we spent most of a day filming my campaign video with SI's video maestro, Ian Orefice. The production values were disarmingly high (HD video, quality background score and voiceover), and Ian came up with the idea to have me go out on the streets to shake hands with the masses across from Radio City Music Hall. I had to take a deep breath on that one, but you'd be surprised how many people will stop and talk to you if they see a guy with a video camera. We had a blast, and Ian edited the video to strike a good balance between humor (a powerful tool) and the real changes I was proposing for FIFA.
We launched the campaign announcement and video publicly on Feb. 17 in the magazine, on SI.com and on my Twitter and Facebook pages. I expected it would be noticed, but I had no idea it would spread globally with such speed and volume. Social media is a remarkable thing. On the first day, the campaign was endorsed on Twitter by NBA star Steve Nash, NFL receiver Chad Ochocinco, comedian Drew Carey and Saturday Night Live's Seth Meyers. Spanish soccer player Xabi Alonso sent a message of good luck. Media from around the world contacted SI to set up interviews, and I did video hits for CNN, Bloomberg TV and Reuters, among others.
The message found an audience. My main campaign promises were simple enough: As president I would do a WikiLeaks on FIFA, releasing every internal document to the public so we could find out how clean or unclean FIFA really is. I would push for term limits to prevent any FIFA president from serving more than two four-year terms. I would support (with the approval of the IFAB) the introduction of video-replay technology for all close calls on the goal line. And I would name a woman as FIFA's general secretary, the organization's most powerful appointed position, to change the old-boy network culture that will continue to thrive as long as all 24 members of the FIFA executive committee are men.
The response was overwhelmingly positive. Some 3,000 people started following my Facebook campaign page, while another 3,000 signed a Twitter petition started by a college student in Minnesota. Over the past six weeks I did more than 60 interviews with media outlets in Brazil, Argentina, Russia, Malaysia, Canada, the U.S., England, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Chile, Nigeria, South Africa, France, Germany, Switzerland, China, Australia and New Zealand.
Nearly all the interviews started the same way, by asking if the campaign was a joke. (Only the Chinese asked if people thought I was a madman, which was an inspired question.) I reminded them that I wrote in the second sentence of my campaign announcement that I wasn't kidding, but I also knew I would have to reinforce that with my actions by doing everything I could (including traveling to Paris) to seek an official nomination. I was also well aware that cynics might view my candidacy as an effort simply to draw publicity for myself, so I made sure to steer interviews as much as possible toward my message and limited my Twitter posts on the campaign to no more than two per day.
At one point my wife asked me: "Do I have to think about moving to Switzerland?" (FIFA's headquarters are in Zürich.) I told her to come back to me in a few weeks, but I wasn't naive. My chances of beating Blatter were minuscule, but I thought it might just be possible to land a nomination. With all the countries and all the fans who were dissatisfied with Blatter, there had to be one FA out of 208 that would have the guts to nominate me, right?
If FIFA were truly a representative democracy, I'm convinced that not only would I have been nominated, but I also would have beaten Blatter and Bin Hammam in a landslide on election day. In a survey of readers, SI.com asked who they would vote for if given the chance. I got 95 percent of the vote, Bin Hammam had 3 percent and Blatter had 2 percent. FIFA and the world's FAs talk a good game about the importance of the fans, but when it comes to the politics of the sport, the fans just don't matter. Not one bit.
And that's a shame. Interacting with the world's supporters was my favorite part of running for FIFA president, and they did some amazing things. On the opening night of MLS, a D.C. United fan hung a banner that read WAHL 4 FIFA PRES. And in early March I had no idea what was awaiting me when I spoke at the Las Vegas rally of the American Outlaws, the U.S. national team's largest supporters' group. One of the event's sponsors, an energy drink called Golazo, made dozens of campaign signs and buttons that read WAHL FIFA PRESIDENT. I was floored. After I gave my speech, the Outlaws and I taped a video message for Blatter out on The Strip.
Still, it was one thing to win support from the fans. Persuading the world's stuffy old soccer politicians to nominate me was another matter entirely, one that brought all sorts of people -- and, let's be honest, some unusual characters -- out of the woodwork.