Is FIFA president Sepp Blatter losing support in South America?
What does it mean when something doesn't happen? Is inaction actually an action?
Sepp Blatter left CONMEBOL's congress this week without the endorsement of the South American Football Confederation. In the past, it was downright automatic, thanks to his long history with various power brokers in that part of the world. He was close to Brazilian FA boss Ricardo Teixeira, son-in-law of his former boss and predecessor, one-time FIFA president Joao Havelange, and to Julio Grondona, who headed the Argentine FA for 35 years. But Teixeira is now out of the picture and has faced a host of corruption allegations while Grondona passed away in June.
Blatter had hoped to emerge from the congress in Asuncion, Paraguay, with the new generation of CONMEBOL leaders squarely behind him, just like the predecessors. And, in fact, on Tuesday night a source told Reuters that they would back him the following day.
Except that never happened. The question is why?
Is it because South America, after decades of loyal support, is turning its back on the FIFA president? Is it because the three candidates standing against Blatter -- Jordan's Prince Ali, the Netherlands' Michael van Praag and Portugal's Luis Figo -- who were also campaigning heavily at the congress, managed to shift support away from the incumbent? Or is there something else?
In the world of FIFA politics, it's tough to tell.
The official explanation is that they simply never got around to voting. It's not as if somebody suggested endorsing Blatter and was voted down. The motion was never put forward. Was it because Blatter's CONMEBOL backers knew it wouldn't pass, as his opponents suggest? Or was it because they were busy deliberating other important matters, as his camp insists?
Make up your own mind. Either way, it's significant that they didn't make it a priority to throw their support 100 percent behind the FIFA president.
The impression is that it has as much to do with horse-trading and old-style politics as it does with Blatter. South America's power within FIFA is at risk of erosion and CONMEBOL wants to back whoever is most likely to preserve it. The confederation represents just 10 of FIFA's 209 members (4.8 percent), but supplied three of 25 Executive Committee members (12 percent) and six of 32 nations at the last World Cup (18.8 percent). What's more, Grondona himself was in charge of the influential FIFA Finance Committee, while Teixeira was for many years deputy chairman of the FIFA Referees' Committee. (FIFA's Finance Committee is now run by Cameroon's Issa Hayatou and Papua New Guinea's David Chung, while the referees are handled by Northern Ireland's Jim Boyce and China's Zhang Jilong, though this will all likely change after May's FIFA Congress and elections.)
Such over-representation is a legacy of South America's standing in the game, as well as its history. Europe, after all, is also over- represented, though its FIFA membership is five times as large and its economic clout much more significant. But you can see how CONMEBOL's power might rankle folks in Africa, Asia and CONCACAF who, simply put, have historically mattered much less in FIFA's power structure.
At stake is also the number of World Cup slots and representation. Van Praag and Figo, for example, have talked about a 40- and 48-team World Cup, respectively. So, in very simple terms, promising more spots to CONCACAF, Asia and Africa will get you more votes than doing it for CONMBEOL because those confederations are much bigger.
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It's perhaps wise to read the lack of endorsement not as a rejection of Blatter but rather as a "wait and hear everyone out" moment. Many CONMEBOL leaders are decades younger than Blatter, so it's safe to assume they're wondering whether he'll be around to look out for them down the road. The days of blind, immediate loyalty are gone.
Of course, this doesn't mean that South America's 10 votes will NOT be going to Blatter as they've always done. It just means that the race for the presidency might be more open than we thought. And that there's a lot more of deal-making and horse-trading to be done.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.