As own goals go, it was by far the most revealing of the FIFA election campaign.
Sheihk Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa’s expressed preference for a one-man congress crowning on February 26 without even the facade of an election suggested everything about his attitude to even FIFA’s flawed concepts of democracy.
Questions had already been raised about whether the wealthy scion of Bahrain’s royal family – minority Sunni rulers of a Shiite majority – possessed either the will or capacity to introduce transparency and ‘good governance’ to the world football federation.
Sheikh Salman may well win the presidency for all his apparent faux pas in an interview with the Associated Press. But it will do his fragile credibility no harm to do so via a democratic route.
Indeed, his urgent challenge is to accede as a progressive president . . . and he is running short of time to put such cards on the table.
Anything less and the goodwill generally afforded to a newly-elected leader will be short-lived and FIFA will continue to flounder. That would not be good for business.
FIFA need only look at world athletics to see multinational sponsors re-evaluating image assocations with scandal-mired sports federations.
Initial signs are not good.
Sheikh Salman secured the presidency of the Asian confederation three years ago heavily dependent on the string-pulling of IOC power-broker Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah (who now has issues running beyond his own control back home in Kuwait).
Even setting aside the enduring controversy of the 2011 Bahrain human rights crackdown, Sheikh Salman’s record at the head of the AFC has been disappointing.
His brave talk of cleaning up the AFC has not been followed by deeds: he set up an ethics committee which has left all the region’s clean-up work to FIFA; he maintained predecessor Mohamed bin Hammam’s protective secrecy around the AFC’s commercial partnership; and he scrapped the female vice-presidency.
Yet . . . if Salman comes to power at FIFA he will do so minutes after congress has (probably) voted in a personally contradictory reforms package supposed to reduce the president’s power, introduce open governance, guarantee more power and visibility for women plus enact pay transparency.
Already, by stating that he will not take a presidential salary, Sheikh Salman has signalled that he intends to sidestep pay transparency. One law for him, one law for everyone else.
Last month Sheikh Salman frightened half of FIFA’s membership by questioning his election rivals’ proposals for expanding the development budget; now he is proposing negotiating the choice of a new president (meaning him, of course) in secrecy, behind closed doors, ahead of the event.
All this suggests that bending to the democratic will is not his game. For his own – and FIFA’s – sake Sheikh Salman has two weeks to indicate otherwise. With the very best will in the world game, time is not on his side.