Despite the growing FIFA corruption scandals feeling like a tumble down a bottomless pit, there’s always been a perception problem regarding scope. For all the organizations problems, they tend to play out in the media as stories of rich men conspiring with (and against) each other to make themselves richer. Yet it’s worth remembering that the lives of actual people are being affected by the corruption entrenched in FIFA and perpetuated by the people who step up for leadership roles.
Consider the case of Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa. A member of the Bahraini royal family and president of the Asian Football Confederation, Sheikh Salman officially declared his candidacy for FIFA president earlier today, taking advantage of Michel Platini’s suspension and subsequent lack of political viability. Depending on who you ask, Sheikh Salman is arguably the new frontrunner to replace Sepp Blatter after the elections in February.
Since his candidacy started to emerge in backroom chatter a couple weeks ago, several prominent human rights organizations have come out to denounce Sheikh Salman. At the heart of their complaints is his and his family’s involvement in the suppression of pro-democracy protests in Bahrain in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring.
Nicholas McGeehan, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, said that Sheikh Salman was involved in identifying as many as 150 athletes—including footballers—who participated in the demonstrations and referring them to the country’s security forces, who were then detained and tortured. “Since the peaceful anti-government protests of 2011, which the authorities responded to with brutal and lethal force, the al-Khalifa family have overseen a campaign of torture and mass incarceration that has decimated Bahrain’s pro-democracy movement.”
For his part, Sheikh Salman has denied the allegations. Many connected to FIFA’s political ecosystem see the Sheikh as a clean candidate, having managed to avoid ties to the seemingly limitless horizon of corruption scandals that have come to define football’s global governing body. With FIFA desperate to rehabilitate its image—to be seen as committing to reform, whether or not any follow-through is intended—Sheikh Salman is being touted by some as football’s best hope for a clean slate.
As McGeehan noted: “If a member of Bahrain’s royal family is the cleanest pair of hands that Fifa can find, then the organisation would appear to have the shallowest and least ethical pool of talent in world sport.”