Blunt questions for Grant Wahl: speaking with the man hoping to take down Sepp Blatter and clean up FIFA

Interview by Eric Beard, writing from Barcelona. Illustration by Jon Horner.

I often assume the role of a romantic or even an idealist when writing about football. When Grant Wahl announced his intention to oppose Sepp Blatter, it was genuinely invigorating. What would FIFA be like under, more or less, a man of the people? For football fans everywhere it is an intoxicating image. Millions like myself already get enough enjoyment out of taking reign of teams in FIFA 11 or Football Manager, but actually being El Presidente at the governing body of the beautiful game? For many passionate supporters that’s an equivalent to being the god of football. EA Sports, make it happen.

Despite my initial indulgence in the notion that someone with values like myself rather than like those of Gordon Gecko could be in power, reality came and brought me down to my feet. Idealism aside, with the current set up of FIFA elections, displacing Sepp Blatter or even Qatar’s Mohamed Bin Hammam will be so difficult even Arsene Wenger has the word ‘impossible’ on the tip of his tongue. With that in mind, a few logistical and even moral issues arose. Although I became quite a skeptic of Grant’s motivations behind his movement, thankfully he took time out of his busy schedule to answer everything I had on my mind, from the basic to the blunt…

Eric Beard: What exactly is the point of this campaign and how on earth can a campaign such as this be taken seriously? Though in fairness, does it say more about FIFA or you that you have chosen to go with a somewhat humorous campaign? Was there any alternative?

Grant Wahl: The first point of my campaign is to win the FIFA presidency and become the first FIFA president to truly represent the voice of the world’s football fans. I want people to have a sense of humor about my campaign because I know I’m not a typical candidate, and I also think humor and satire are two of the most powerful weapons we have as human beings. But I also want people to know that I’m serious about wanting major reforms in FIFA. The world’s best sport deserves to have the world’s best sports organization running it. I know my chances of winning are slim, but I do think it’s possible for us to send the message to FIFA and Sepp Blatter that business as usual is not OK. FIFA claims to be a great democracy, but great democracies don’t have one-candidate elections all the time. Blatter needed a challenger, and so far I’m the only one.

E: As much as I want to see someone like you in charge of FIFA, is this worth my attention or simply a pleasurable distraction from issues people should actually be paying attention to? (i.e. Libya/Middle Eastern revolts) If (somewhat) educated people like myself allow this to share our little spotlights with “real” issues in the world, does it remain a good movement? Is this the right time to launch this campaign?

G: You could ask the same question about how we can watch sports at all during a turbulent time in the Middle East. I realize that FIFA and football aren’t nearly as serious as what’s going on in that part of the world right now, but that doesn’t mean we can’t discuss how to improve FIFA and the governance of the sport. 

Who do you think you are (besides a great writer and journalist) in the football & sports community to take such a bold stance? Where does this desire come from?

I’ve tried from the start to send a message that unites the world’s football fans against what is currently going on at FIFA under Sepp Blatter. This isn’t about self-promotion, and yet I understand it’s impossible to completely avoid that in order to get the message out there. Judging from the positive reaction I’ve gotten from around the world to my candidacy, that message is resonating with fans in a lot of countries. They want change in FIFA.

I know this is going to be a win-win from your perspective. After all, not every journalist gets the chance to be endorsed by hundreds of players, bloggers, and journalists, as well as thousands of fans. Bluntly, how can this be more than an elaborate PR stunt? Or rather, how can your message and power in his “man of the people” outshine the attention and ‘fame’ you will receive? 

It’s up to me to focus everyone’s attention on the message. I think it’s possible to do that.

Is Grant Wahl fit to lead FIFA? From all the Aristotle I’ve read, the best leader approaches their position as a sacrifice from more enjoyable and personally stimulating activities. From a cozy position at SI fulfilling one of your passions, would you sacrifice it all to actually be the one to make the game good again? Are you comfortable with the power the position entails and how much research have you done on it? (side note: have you read Bill Archer’s column? Any thoughts on it?)

I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t be fit to lead FIFA. I’m honest. I’m hard-working. I love this sport, and I care about the world’s football fans. I don’t know if I could say that about everyone running FIFA today. Nor would I be the first sports journalist to become FIFA president; three of the eight FIFA presidents in history worked as sportswriters at one point in their careers. I’ve done research into the history of the FIFA presidency: who these men were, what they achieved and the challenges they faced. It’s a big task, obviously, but I’m ready for it.

As for Archer’s column, I did read it. I admire Bill’s passion when it comes to FIFA, and I think we have similar beliefs on the vast majority of things regarding FIFA, its problems and its future. Some points I would make to him:

1) Just because Sports Illustrated has yet to publish a big investigative exposé on FIFA does not mean that we haven’t looked into it and are continuing to look into it.

2) I’m fully aware that the FIFA president is not solely responsible for changes to the rules of the sport, but the president does have a major influence in this area and others.

3) I wouldn’t characterize my campaign as “deadly serious,” the way he did. This isn’t Libya. I’m combining satire and humor with common-sense proposals to make FIFA a better organization.

4) There are many ways to have an impact using a media platform, and my campaign is one of them. So far, 99.9% of the response from the world’s fans and media has been positive. I’m finding that the message calling for change in FIFA is an incredibly powerful one that resonates around the globe. 

How would you handle the World Cup hosting allocation differently from how it is at the moment?

I think it should be one vote per FIFA member nation, just like the presidential election.

Many accept your legitimate questions about FIFA’s responsibility to fans. But has the media covering the game also fallen short of its responsibility to fans in the way it has historically covered FIFA?

I’m not big into criticizing other media members, especially since I have been a full-time soccer writer for all of 14 months. (I have covered college basketball and soccer together for SI since 1996.) I think it’s useful, though, to compare FIFA to another Swiss-based organization—the International Olympic Committee—and how the Salt Lake City scandal played out. One of the key early moments in that story came when an IOC member named Marc Hodler made the courageous move of calling out the IOC’s shadiness and demanding change. As of yet I don’t see a Marc Hodler in FIFA, although that doesn’t mean there isn’t/won’t be one. It certainly helps reporters when there are people inside the organization itself who want reform.

Which national federation would actually sponsor you? Wouldn’t that be a death wish for future considerations for that particular federation? (i.e. Going Wikileaks on FIFA and the term “Blatter Infection” aren’t exactly charming…)

I have been in contact with a few FAs already and plan to be in touch with more in the coming days. I’m aware that there might be negative repercussions for an FA that officially nominates me: FIFA hands out money to FAs as part of its Goal program to encourage soccer development, and the threat of withholding that could be a problem for FAs, particularly small ones. But the point I’m making to FAs right now is that you can nominate me by the April 1 deadline without having to vote for me in the June 1 election. Nominating me would be a show of support for democracy in FIFA as much as anything else. Democracies need more than one candidate in elections for the good of the organization, so that we can discuss and debate ideas on how to make things better. Right now there are two candidates: Blatter and me. (I’m not at all certain that Mohamed Bin Hammam is going to run.) If Blatter ends up running unopposed for the second time in a row, that would send the message that the world is entirely satisfied with his performance—and that’s not close to being true.

Grant Wahl’s road to becoming FIFA President remains a long one, but the dream remains steadfast with nations such as England announcing that they would support a “credible" challenger to Sepp Blatter.  The FIFA Presidency nomination deadline of April 1st is right around the corner, so hopefully one nation’s football association has the courage to endorse Wahl. It’s not much, but Grant has my vote, along with the support of the rest of us here at AFR. You can support Grant Wahl on Twitter & on his Facebook page.

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