My story: What happened when I decided to run for FIFA president
Grant Wahl decided to run as the people's candidate for the FIFA presidency
A mysterious figure promised to connect Wahl to important FA figures
One high-ranking FA official told Wahl a public nomination was impossible
On Feb. 17, Sports Illustrated senior writer Grant Wahl announced his candidacy for FIFA president, releasing his platform for change and his campaign video as the People's Choice to replace Sepp Blatter. Wahl had 43 days to be formally nominated by one of the world's 208 national federations before the final deadline: Friday at 6 p.m. ET. With the deadline about to hit, Wahl is ending his campaign. This is his inside story of what happened over the past six weeks.
If I'm being honest, the high point and the low point of my campaign for FIFA president took place minutes apart in the lobby of the Hilton Arc de Triomphe hotel in Paris on March 21. The Hilton was the official hotel for the UEFA Congress, the annual gathering of the people who run the 53 European soccer nations, and I had crossed the Atlantic to do two things:
1. Show I was serious about my campaign
2. Meet with officials from various FAs to see if they would nominate me by the April 1 deadline.
At 9:30 that morning, there were only a half-dozen people in the plush lobby of the Hilton. One of them was Mohamed bin Hammam, the Qatari who'd just announced his FIFA presidential candidacy three days earlier. But I was there to see someone else, a top official from a World Cup-winning FA who had (to my delight) agreed to meet face-to-face to discuss my campaign. I had long ago realized that my best chance for landing a nomination was a mid- or large-sized FA, mainly because the small nations are so indebted to the development money train of FIFA's GOAL program that they would never risk losing it by nominating an outsider.
But if I could persuade one of the world's most respected, successful FAs to nominate me? Now that would make history. It got off to a perfect start. I shook the official's hand, and as we walked over to a quiet booth in the corner he stopped and said a quick hello to Bin Hammam, who now saw that I had landed a meeting with a very big fish. That couldn't have gone any better if I'd planned it, I thought to myself. (Sure enough, a few minutes later I got a long-awaited e-mail from Bin Hammam's assistant confirming a meeting between me and Bin Hammam later that day.)
After some initial pleasantries, my conversation with the World Cup-winning FA man started off straightforward enough. "Why won't the U.S. federation nominate you?" he asked.
"They're like everyone else," I said. "They fear the negative reaction down the road from Blatter and FIFA."
Then he explained his FA's position, one that was influenced not just by Blatter but also by UEFA president Michel Platini of France. "Tomorrow at the UEFA Congress, Blatter will announce that he will not run in 2015," he said. "Platini wants to run in 2015, so Platini will ask all the big European nations to support Blatter this year. We don't like Blatter that much, but now we will owe Platini as well."
The problem, he explained, was that nominating a candidate for FIFA president would be a public declaration -- subject to negative blowback from Blatter and Platini -- while the actual vote on June 1 is a secret ballot. "We would be more likely to vote for you in the election than to nominate you," he told me. "Nominating you is impossible."
I didn't know whether to pump my fist or hang my head in despair. On the one hand, a top official from a World Cup-winning FA had taken me seriously enough to schedule a meeting, had even gone so far as to tell me he'd consider voting for me if I was able to gain a nomination. On the other hand, it was possible (likely?) that he was just being nice about his vote consideration, and the news he delivered showed exactly how difficult it would be to crack the inner circle and persuade an FA to nominate me.
I kept trying to secure that nomination right up until the last day before the deadline. I owed that to the thousands of soccer fans around the world who had put their trust in me as the People's Candidate, who had expressed their support on Twitter and Facebook over the past six weeks. They came from dozens of countries, making clear that the simple message of cleaning up FIFA resonated around the globe. It was a rollicking adventure, one that I'll never forget. By the time it was over, I had contacted some 150 national federations and had received responses from around 30 FAs, from countries big (Australia, the U.S.) and small (Iceland, Dominica, FYR Macedonia) and somewhere in between (Sweden, Chile, Ireland, Israel).
Many of them voiced the same message I heard in that Paris hotel lobby: We don't really like the status quo, but nominating you is impossible. Nobody had the courage to do it. The prevailing mood was fear.