Bin Hammam or Blatter? Neither, says US journalist as he bids for Fifa's top job

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 March, 2011, 12:00am

This week's Uefa Congress in Paris saw Sepp Blatter and Mohammed bin Hammam doing their best to avoid each other in the corridors of the Hilton Arc de Triomphe before their battle for the Fifa presidency on June 1. Another candidate lobbying for support was an American sports journalist hoping to make an audacious bid for soccer's top job.

With his shaven head, neat appearance and ready smile, 37-year-old Grant Wahl looks more like a friendly schoolteacher than a potential powerbroker. His day job is senior writer for Sports Illustrated, but Wahl is probably best known for writing The Beckham Experiment, a controversial biography two years ago about David Beckham's arrival in the US.

Wahl never played professional soccer nor has he held any serious administrative position. However, the Baltimore resident wants to run as the peoples' candidate to implement changes, which he says need to be urgently made to the world governing body. With a cheeky slogan of 'Cure the Blatter infection', Wahl is happy to paint himself as the rebellious outsider.

In Paris this week, Blatter and Bin Hammam were riding in separate luxury Mercedes to the Grand Palais as Michel Platini won a second four-year term as Uefa president, while Wahl was slumming it in the Metro. He flew to the French capital on an overnight flight at the back of economy class.

'I travel around the world covering football, and wherever I go the fans complain about Fifa because they don't think it's a clean organisation,' Wahl said.

'So I decided to do something about it by running for Fifa president. 'It's time to start changing the culture from a club made up entirely of old men. For a start, I would name a woman as general secretary and support some common-sense changes.'

Among Wahl's other proposals: video-replays for close calls on the goal line, a two-term limit for the Fifa president (including himself) and making referees explain their decisions after games.

To take the next step in his candidacy, Wahl needs one of Fifa's 208 member associations to endorse him by the April 1 deadline. If that happens, the reporter who covered college basketball for 14 years before concentrating on soccer, will prove that his brazen bid is more than just an April Fool's joke.

'In Paris I had several meetings, including one with a top official from a World Cup-winning FA,' he said. 'There has been interest, but no nomination yet. I have contacted around 150 FAs so far and will be contacting more.'

Indeed, Wahl is heartened by the fact three of Fifa's previous eight presidents dating back more than a century, including the incumbent Blatter, had also worked as sports journalists.

Support for the Princeton University graduate is growing. Don Garber, the commissioner of Major League Soccer, joined US national team players Jozy Altidore and Maurice Edu in giving his stamp of approval because 'I've had my fill of Fifa politics'.

Among those to also vouch for Wahl's bid include Canada's two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash, Cincinnati Bengals' NFL player Chad Ochocinco and television star Drew Carey.

When Asian Football Confederation boss Bin Hammam announced his candidacy, Wahl was at his Maryland home, following through the night via internet streaming. Although the Qatari is campaigning on a platform of change and greater visibility, Wahl is not convinced.

'Both Bin Hammam and Blatter are Fifa insiders who have been inside the organisation for many years, and both men say they are certain Fifa is not corrupt,' Wahl said. 'Seriously? How can we be certain of that?

'That's why I want to open an investigation on Fifa when I'm Fifa president. If Blatter and Bin Hammam are so certain Fifa is clean, then they should welcome that, too.'

Citing last December's voting for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, Wahl believes the corruption in soccer's corridors of power has got out of hand. Before Qatar was controversially awarded the right to host the 2022 tournament after beating the US in the final round of voting, two members of Fifa's executive committee were found guilty of accepting bribes.

'Blatter himself admits that Fifa's reputation has been tarnished under his watch,' Wahl said. 'As the ultimate outsider I'll bring Fifa into the 21st century by enacting the reforms no apparatchik in the old boys' network would dare propose.

'As president I will do a WikiLeaks on Fifa, releasing every internal document to the public so we can find out how clean or unclean Fifa really is. At the moment, Fifa has as much transparency and credibility as the Mubarak regime did.'

Few people in the sporting mainstream are taking this rebel seriously and some dismiss his campaign as a publicity stunt. A light-hearted YouTube campaign video shows Wahl drumming up support outside the Sports Illustrated offices in New York City, introducing himself and shaking the hands of bemused pedestrians.

'You're running for what?' one elderly woman asks in the heart of New York Yankees country.

The tone is tongue-in-cheek but Wahl's intention seems deadly serious. For a start, he says it is simply not right the course of his entire life has seen only two Fifa presidents: Joao Havelange (1974-98) and Blatter (1998-2011).

'Humour and satire are two of the most powerful weapons we have as human beings so I want people to have a sense of humour about my campaign because I know I'm not a typical candidate,' he said. 'But it is also important to know I'm not joking about wanting major reforms in Fifa.'

So what will Wahl do if no member association nominates him? And how difficult will it be to go back to his day job writing articles about Major League Soccer and Team USA's bid to qualify for their seventh World Cup?

'If I don't get the nomination ... it would prove that the world's FAs don't listen to the fans, who would vote for me over Blatter and Bin Hammam in a heartbeat,' he said.

'But I'd have no problem returning to full-time journalism. I get paid to travel the world covering football. There's no way I would ever complain about that.'