What happened when I ran for FIFA president (cont.)
"Grant Wahl, an American journalist, has some good ideas but no chance at all."
-- The Economist
My cell phone rang in Paris on the afternoon of March 21. The voice on the other end was a familiar one: FTG, the mystery man. "You're wearing a nice striped suit today, Mr. Grant," he said.
My brow furrowed. I had yet to see the man in the flesh. This was starting to feel like a poor man's Jason Bourne movie. "Are you here at the UEFA hotel in Paris?" I asked.
"I'm in Paris. We can meet."
"Today or tomorrow?"
"Today is better. Call me in 10 minutes."
FTG didn't want to meet in the lobby of the UEFA hotel -- that paranoia again -- so he asked to rendezvous at a pharmacy down the street. When I finally saw the guy, he looked a lot like your typical middle manager from Syracuse. Wearing a navy blazer and a shiny black tie, FTG carried a blue backpack that made him appear as though he had just left school for the day. He was in his 40s, slightly overweight and nervous in his mannerisms. His eyes were bloodshot. FTG thought we were being watched and asked to duck into a brasserie next to the pharmacy.
I won't bore you with the details of our conversation, not that one or the one the next day that took place -- cliché alert! -- on a park bench near the Champs Elysees. Suffice it to say, F.T. García never explained who he was or why he was spending his time and money to speak to me. He never brought much to the table, really, but just enough to keep me intrigued. Ultimately, FTG wasn't fascinating for what he accomplished. He was fascinating because someone like him existed -- a peripheral figure in the sprawling FIFA demimonde who knew a guy who knew a guy (or maybe not). Even the ties that he did have weren't close. The Macedonian general secretary, Igor Klimper? He answered my calls just once in Paris, said he'd ring me in an hour and never did. As for the ex-president of the Georgia FA, his secretary told me he was now busy -- for the next month.
That said, my trip to Paris wasn't a complete waste of time. I had my meeting with the official from the World Cup-winning FA. I interviewed Bin Hammam for a story. I got interviewed by Le Monde and by the investigative reporter Andrew Jennings for an upcoming BBC special on FIFA.
And I learned an important truth: No matter how much support you may have from the world's fans, an outsider candidate is doomed to fail in the world of FIFA politics, where the old men in the navy suits have all the power. That outsider candidate could be Kofi Annan or Bill Clinton or George Weah, but even if they ran they could not win, nor might they even be nominated. Remember, public opinion does not matter in FIFA election campaigns. The greatest player in Chile's history, a man with political experience and popular acclaim, could not get nominated by the Chilean federation.
And so we're left today with two nominated candidates: Sepp Blatter and Mohamed bin Hammam, two longtime FIFA insiders, two men who may disagree on small points but are in perfect lockstep on the most important topic of the day. Is FIFA corrupt? Both Blatter and Bin Hammam say they are certain that it is not. How can anyone be certain of that? And if they are certain, they should welcome a full and independent investigation of FIFA from top to bottom, one that would address the tarnished reputation that the organization has acquired.
Even though I failed to secure a nomination, the message I wanted to send got out. Ordinary fans in countries around the world talked a little bit more about the absurdities of FIFA's electoral process. They asked why their voices don't matter, why so few people challenge the unpopular status quo, and why an organization that purports to be a great democracy has so many one-candidate elections at its various levels. They asked why the leaders of FIFA don't make common-sense reforms that would give the world's greatest sport the clean and respected administration it deserves.
As for me, I'm done with being a candidate in soccer elections, at least for the next few decades. Running for office closer to home would conflict too much with my journalism and book writing, and those are the things I do best. But I'll never forget the positive response from the sport's fans, near and far, who wanted to see real change in FIFA. Thank you for everything, and I'll see you at the games.
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