PORT LOUIS (Reuters) - Sepp Blatter’s two-year campaign to change the public perception of FIFA as a corrupt organisation run by self-interested old men, reaches its moment of truth at the governing body’s annual Congress in Mauritius on Friday.
While the FIFA president may be 77 and contemplating staying in office into his 80s, his attempts at widespread reform have already produced a different looking organisation than the one engulfed in scandal and crisis two years ago.
Dominico Scala, the Swiss industrialist brought in last year to head the powerful Audit and Compliance Committee and oversee the reform roadmap has been given a free hand by Blatter to do what it takes to modernise the 109-year old organisation.
In a rare press briefing this week he said: ”You have to give FIFA some credit for trying to change and I do not think it is widely appreciated how much it is changing.
”A third of the executive committee has been replaced in the last 18 months, which is almost unheard of in public companies or organisations like FIFA. Of course there is some way to go, but the changes that have been made are considerable.
“The public may or may not appreciate them, but as a working organisation, I think FIFA have moved on a lot from where it was when this process started.”
Criticism does remain, however, with anti-corruption organisation Trace International president Alexandra Wrage explaining that the governing body steered clear of the reforms she proposed before resigning from her post at the FIFA-installed Independent Governance Committee.
“It was a frustrating process because FIFA has been resistant to fundamental government changes,” she told reporters recently. “FIFA does not fully understand the extent of reputational damage that they were trying to repair.”
Not all of the reforms due to be on Friday’s agenda will be put before Congress.
The most obvious omission is a proposal aimed at limiting the age and number of terms top officials can serve on their national confederation or FIFA bodies, but Blatter told an Asian Football Confederation conference on Wednesday he expected it to be on the agenda next year.
A member of the executive committee who supports the limitations but cannot be named told Reuters: ”If we had presented the proposal to Congress in the form it was in, it would have failed and could not have been on the agenda next year.
“In any case, we do not have elections for another two years so if we wait a year, it is not so bad. Different criteria operate in FIFA’s 209 countries and this is something we have to get right.”
Two other reforms have yet to be implemented. One detailing what Blatter and top FIFA officials earn and another allowing independent observers into FIFA Executive committee meetings.
By contrast, the powerful new Ethics Committee, split into investigative and adjudicatory chambers, is up and running and has already had an impact with its power to suspend anyone suspected of wrongdoing.
Vernon Manilal Fernando of Sri Lanka was suspended and then banned from soccer for eight years last month after an investigation into his activities was completed by the Ethics Committee.
That sort of justice was unheard of just a few years ago.
Congress is also expected to endorse the first election of a woman on to the executive committee after Lydia Nsekera of Burundi was co-opted for one year at the last Congress in Budapest.
Two other women will be co-opted onto the committee.
Along with Nsekera, Moya Dodd of Australia, Sonia Bien-aime of the Turks and Caicos Islands and Paula Kearns of New Zealand are standing for election.
The catalyst for reform was the flawed idea to stage a joint bidding process for the World Cup finals of 2018 and 2022, with increasingly intense campaigns for those two prizes running alongside each other throughout 2009 and 2010.
Blatter has openly admitted that FIFA had made a “bad mistake” over the bidding processes and it led to the suspension of two Executive Committee members who attempted to sell their votes for cash.
Worse was to follow six months later, when Blatter was due to stand for re-election as FIFA president against his wealthy Qatari challenger Mohamed Bin Hammam.
Just days before the election Bin Hammam was accused of trying to bribe Caribbean officials to vote for him in a plot orchestrated by Jack Warner.
Since then Warner, Bin Hammam and others including Brazilian Riccardo Teixera, Paraguayan Nicolas Leoz and Chuck Blazer of the United States have all left FIFA.
A FIFA confidante told Reuters on Thursday: ”Let us not be naive and think that all is rosy in the FIFA garden - it isn‘t. But at least this process has weeded out some of those who should have gone years ago - and now they have.
“Some of the old crocodiles are hanging in there, but their days are numbered, even if we have to wait a little while longer for the age limits to come into force.” (Editing by John O‘Brien)