Friday, Feb. 26 will mark a momentous day in the history of FIFA, with a five-candidate election to determine who succeeds Sepp Blatter as president. ESPN is planning comprehensive coverage of the proceedings, with Jeremy Schaap and Gabriele Marcotti reporting from the FIFA Congress in Zurich, Bob Ley hosting daily FIFA-focused editions of Outside The Lines, ESPNFC discussing the election daily from Tuesday to Friday, and a wide variety of players, analysts and journalists contributing as pundits and guests. ESPN’s coverage will kick off Sunday at 8 p.m. Eastern with an updated version of Schaap’s one-hour documentary on Blatter and FIFA that initially aired last May. Schaap spoke to Awful Announcing from the airport Friday ahead of his trip to Switzerland to discuss the state of FIFA, the upcoming election and how ESPN plans to cover it.
AA: You did the big documentary on Sepp Blatter last year. How have things changed since then? You’re doing a new updated version now?
JS: Yeah, we’re updating that with all the developments that have taken place since it first aired. It actually aired two weeks before the arrests took place in Zurich and three weeks before the re-election of Sepp Blatter, which was just two days before he announced he was standing down. It’s been a chaotic nine months in the world of FIFA, and we’re just updating the show to reflect that. I think we previously updated it once, but I’ve given it this bigger overhaul just to get everyone up to speed. It’s hard sometimes to keep track, there are so many developments. For a long time, everything was kind of static, and then in May when everything hit the fan, it changed the whole universe of FIFA. We’re trying to get people up to speed because this election is so consequential.
AA: You’ve been covering this for a long time; did you ever see Sepp Blatter stepping down? Did you ever imagine that could happen?
JS: I really can’t think I anticipated that, no. Thinking back to what I was thinking when our piece came out, I fully expected him to win re-election and then perhaps to run again in 2019 if he was still physically capable. The resignation, I remember exactly where I was when he made the announcement. It was stunning. I remember I was in my car, listening on WatchESPN, and it was coming through my Bluetooth, and I was like ‘This sounds like he’s about to resign! No, this can’t be!” It was stunning. Obviously, after the arrests and after the election, somebody got in his ear and said “Enough is enough, you’ve got to concentrate on your own legal issues here.” When we did that piece, that hour special, I think it was on May 12 that it aired, the whole idea was “The most powerful man in sports.” Three weeks later, he was resigning. That’s not to suggest a causal relationship! It just happened very fast.
AA: How much of an impact do you think Blatter’s resignation has really had? Has FIFA really changed since he stepped down?
JS: Well, nothing’s really changed because there hasn’t been anybody in charge. That’s what this election is about. Certainly, the talking points have changed; there have been calls from the candidates—or at least some of them—for wholesale changes. The ethics committee, the recommendations that have been made, there has been an acknowledgement of a greater need for transparency and to conform to good governance principles. But that’s stuff they all said before Sepp Blatter stepped down. There hasn’t been any real change affected because nobody’s been running the show. In fact, nobody really knows who’s running FIFA now. That will change, obviously, in a week.
AA: How important is this election, then?
JS: It’s very important. FIFA doesn’t change leadership often; it happens once in a generation. [João] Havelange was in office for 24 years, Blatter has been in office, he’s still technically the president, for 18 years. These are moments at which the entire direction of the organization is decided. If Lennart Johansson had won in 1998 instead of Sepp Blatter, we would be looking at a very different FIFA world, extremely different. The stakes are no different now. We don’t know exactly how a FIFA run by Infantino would differ from a FIFA run by Sheikh Salomon or Prince Ali, but we know that it would be different, and that’s why the stakes are so high. Once you’re in power, you’re entrenched. Whether or not there are new term limits, if it still stands at [the newly-approved limit of] 12 years, that’s still a long time. Everything’s at stake. It is an organization, even though it’s so spread out and there are so many members and it’s totally global and all that, the guys in charge in Zurich make a lot of the big decisions.
AA: Is there anything that stands out to you about these candidates so far? Does it look like it’s going to be a couple of them in contention, or how do you see this playing out?
JS: That’s the math people have been doing. By the cold hard calculus of it, Salman has got to be considered the favorite at this point with so much backing from Asia, so much from Africa. Can Infantino find a way to break through to 105? I think it’s going to be tough for anyone to overcome Sheikh Salman, I think he’s got to be the odds-on favorite. I don’t know if he’s the Ladbrokes favorite right now, but I don’t see how he couldn’t be. And that’s problematic, too; he’s been less accessible than the other candidates, harder to pin down on a number of issues. There are serious human rights questions about Bahrain, about his role there in the wake of the Arab Spring. I was there in 2011 just after all that stuff was going on, and the stuff that happened, particularly to soccer players, was appalling. There’s never really been a full accounting of Sheikh Salman’s role. He’s denied that he had any role in identifying athletes for the committee that was rounding up Shi’ite protesters, but that’s his word.
AA: What’s it going to mean for you to be on the ground reporting on this? What are you hoping to accomplish?
JS: Well, you’re always hoping that people you know, your contacts will fill you in before things happen, give you the heads-up so that you’re not caught by surprise. Things are pretty fluid. I think we’re going to walk into the congress on the 26th with, I would hope, a good idea of who will emerge victorious, but it’s the kind of thing where it could go down to the wire. It’s the kind of thing where, possibly, it’s now been suggested, by the 25th there will be some kind of agreement reached where maybe Infantino decides “I don’t have the votes, I’m going to withdraw my candidacy and throw my support behind Salman and he’s agreed to make me the secretary-general.”
There are all kinds of possibilities, and I think a lot is going to happen. I’ve been in touch with people who say “Look, this is the way it looks now, but eight days in the world of FIFA…” When you have 209 delegates, corralling those votes is very difficult. And to what extent do the continental confederations speak for the individual national federations, that’s anybody’s guess at what kind of pressures are applied, what kind of solidarity there is. Maybe it’s a rout, maybe it goes down to the wire. I don’t think at this point we can say for sure.
AA: Is there anything else you want to add?
JS: No, other than I look forward to the fondue. I’ve grown fond of Zurich. And I’m going to make a point of ensuring that if Sam Borden is at the Baur au Lac at three in the morning, I’m probably going to have to follow him.
ESPN’s coverage starts with Schaap’s updated FIFA documentary Sunday at eight p.m. Eastern. Outside The Lines will then air FIFA-focused editions every day at 1:30 p.m. Eastern, with half-hour slots Monday to Wednesday, an hour-long election preview Thursday and an hour-long post-election show Friday. ESPNFC will be also focusing on the election daily from Tuesday to Friday at 5:30 p.m. Eastern on ESPN2. Friday’s election itself will be carried live by ESPN as well, with a live feed starting on ESPN3 at 3:30 a.m. Eastern and a SportsCenter special on the election beginning at 7 a.m. and running through 1:30 p.m. Eastern. Thanks to Jeremy for his time; you can follow him on Twitter.