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Soccer Fans Skeptical New FIFA President Will Bring Needed Reform


World soccer's governing body, FIFA, picks a new president tomorrow. Five men are competing to succeed the longtime leader, Sepp Blatter. He resigned last year amid a corruption investigation of top FIFA officials that continues to this day. Depending on whom you ask, tomorrow's election is either a critical moment for FIFA or a waste of time. Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Every presidential election needs polls, so here's an extremely unscientific one.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Balotelli. Aguero.


GOLDMAN: Take any soccer stadium in the world, and ask the crazed people inside what they think about soccer's international governing body. Journalist Matt Negrin did that.

MATT NEGRIN: Everyone had the same reaction, and this was one of universal things I found. Everybody hates FIFA.

GOLDMAN: Negrin embedded with and wrote about soccer fans from Seattle to Croatia to Brazil in the months leading up to the 2014 World Cup. At the time, FIFA corruption allegations were building. Since last May, there have been arrests and indictments by U.S. and Swiss authorities. Now fan hatred and skepticism are at full throttle. Simon Kuper of the Financial Times is a little less skeptical as FIFA members convene for tomorrow's election.

SIMON KUPER: I'm not saying FIFA's going to become clean, but it's going to hard for them to be quite as dirty as they used to be.

GOLDMAN: Kuper has written several books about world soccer. He thinks some reform can happen because of the pressure by U.S. and Swiss law enforcement, but he also knows it's not angry soccer fans voting tomorrow. It's the slightly more than 200 delegates - one for each FIFA member nation.

KUPER: You know, some tiny island in the Pacific where nobody plays soccer has the same vote as the U.S. or China, and a lot of these soccer federations - they have virtually no income.

GOLDMAN: FIFA traditionally has paid these federations to help them develop soccer and to buy loyalty by lining the pockets of some federation leaders. Kuper says that's why many voting members are OK with the status quo.

KUPER: I mean, this is their meal ticket. They don't want to vote for an aggressive reformer.

GOLDMAN: Like candidate Prince Ali of Jordan who this week tried and failed to get the election postponed because of his concerns about voting fraud. Bahrain's Sheikh Salman is favored to win. He's been more dealmaker than reformer, but there's some taint - allegations which the sheikh denies that he was complicit in the torture of Bahraini soccer players who demonstrated against the government during the Arab Spring several years ago. Critics say his victory Friday could mean more of the same.

JULIE FOUDY: You know, one insider has said to me that if Sheikh Salman is elected president, it's essentially Sepp Blatter without the charisma.

GOLDMAN: But Julie Foudy remains hopeful. She's a former star on the U.S. women's national soccer team, now a soccer analyst for ESPN. Foudy is a longtime advocate for developing women's soccer which she says FIFA has neglected. She's optimistic about the vote tomorrow on a separate proposed reform package that calls for more openness. She notes a recent transparency international report that says 81 percent of FIFA's member federations - the ones voting Friday - have no financial records publicly available.

FOUDY: My goodness, in terms of how you create some accountability that's transparent, independent - that, I think, is where they're going to find success if they can figure out that part of the model. Then you know this is how much they're spending a woman's programs, on girls programs, on, you know, whatever you're trying to get into. And right now, you can't even get that information.

GOLDMAN: Tomorrow's gathering is called the extraordinary FIFA congress. Depending on who's elected and what happens with reform proposals, critics hope it lives up to its name. Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.