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Meet the Prince Who Wants to Save Soccer

May 28, 2015

With FIFA's 209 members set to vote Friday in Zurich on who should run the scandal-ridden global soccer authority, the prospect of ending the 17-year rule of FIFA President Sepp Blatter rests on just one unlikely person: A soft-spoken royal half his age, who has never played professional soccer or managed a FIFA club, and who was still a student at Princeton University when Blatter began his first term in office.

Jordan's Prince Ali Bin Hussein, 39, looked a long shot to deprive Blatter of a fifth term atop FIFA when he launched his campaign in January, saying he wanted to end decades of endemic corruption within FIFA and turn it into "a first-class organization that is worthy of a sport that unites billions of people around the globe."

Prince Ali still faces an uphill battle in Friday's vote, despite the arrests of seven top FIFA executives on Wednesday on charges of money laundering and racketeering. In a day that left FIFA and the soccer world in turmoil, police stormed the officials' five-star hotel rooms in Zurich before dawn, just as the U.S. unsealed indictments against them and seven others—and as Swiss police raided FIFA headquarters in the city. The U.S. charges detail decades of kickbacks and bribes worth some $150 million, while the Swiss investigation concerns suspected bribes around the 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosting rights, awarded to Russia and Qatar, respectively.

Despite the volcanic events at FIFA this week, Blatter made it clear on Thursday that he had no intention of resigning, and in fact looks set to win another four-year term. That is in large part because of a voting system that heavily favors Blatter—in fact, this is the first time since 2002 that anyone has challenged him for the seat. Each member-country has an equal vote in the FIFA presidential election, whether they are sporting giants like the U.S. or Brazil, or one of the dozens of poor, soccer-addicted nations to which FIFA dispenses millions for sporting facilities; Africa, for example, has 54 votes, and most of its members are expected to back Blatter. "People are always trying to knock Blatter," Guinea Bissau's soccer chief Nascimento Lopes told Inside World Football on Thursday. Labeling the opposition against Blatter "blasphemy," he asserted, "Africa will vote for Mr. Blatter and I will follow that."

Yet despite Blatter's probable victory, Prince Ali has in some ways already won big. Through four months' campaigning, the former parachutist in the Jordanian military has shifted perceptions about what kind of leader FIFA might have—if not, perhaps, as a result of Friday's vote. (On Thursday, the president of U.S. Soccer acknowledged America's delegate would cast a ballot for the royal, not Blatter.)

Prince Ali's election manifesto—an unknown concept for FIFA—promises to transform FIFA into "a service organization and a clear leader in good governance" and to plow its mammoth profits into improving soccer organizations in the neediest countries. That includes quadrupling the annual funds that FIFA dispenses to each of its member associations, from $250,000 to $1 million, an easily affordable sum for the organization, whose financial statement released earlier this month showed its revenues between 2011 and 2014 totaled about $5.7 billion.

His proposals for FIFA entail a drastic shake-up in its management practices, including regular and open accounting of its finances, and he argues that he has the credentials to oversee it.

Born in 1975, Prince Ali is the son of Jordan's late King Hussein and the younger brother of its current King Abdullah. Like many royals from the Middle East, he attended Britain's Sandhurst Military Academy before Princeton. In 2004, he married a former CNN correspondent, Rym Brahimi, and the couple has two children. He has served as president of Jordan's Football Association for 16 years, and for the past four years has been one of FIFA's seven Vice Presidents; two other FIFA veeps were among those arrested Wednesday. He has also been a member of FIFA's executive committee for the past four years, although he says he will abandon that position if Blatter is elected a fifth term. "I honestly believe I could not be a member of the executive committee under the circumstances for the next four years," he told CNN in March. "I will not run."

Throughout his campaign, Prince Ali has appeared unafraid to make enemies—and enemies he has made. He clashed earlier this month in Bahrain, with that country's Shaikh Salman, who is a close Blatter ally and who heads the Asian Football Confederation. A day before Wednesday's arrests, he revealed that back in April an unnamed person offered to deliver 47 votes for him in Friday's ballot—for a price—and to disclose details of Blatter's personal finances, which had apparently been illegally obtained. Rather than seize on a possible advantage in the vote, Prince Ali reported the incident to law enforcement officials.

All of that has gained Prince Ali powerful fans. Last week, the Dutch football federation president Michael Van Praag and the Portuguese football star Luís Figo both dropped their bids to be voted FIFA president, saying they were throwing their efforts behind Prince Ali instead, in what seemed designed as a strategic move to unseat Blatter. On Thursday, the football federations of Australia, Wales and Britain all said they would vote for Prince Ali.

Michel Platini, president of Europe's powerful football federation UEFA—which does not have a vote but whose high-performing members have considerable prestige with FIFA—also backed Prince Ali. "He knows perfectly the workings of the institutions but has not yet had time to be crushed or deformed by them," Platini told the French sports paper L'Equipe. "He has great freedom of mind and independence that make its strength." That spirit might well have infected some of FIFA now, even if Prince Ali loses on Friday, which looks likely. Once this week's tumultuous events have passed, UEFA and others will consider their options—including perhaps boycotting FIFA events, a decision that could leave this multibillion-dollar empire atop a Zurich hillside severely battered.

32 Most Memorable Moments of the 2014 FIFA World Cup

Brazil's Fred sits on the pitch as Croatian players Vedran Corluka, Dejan Lovren and Ivan Rakitic protest after the referee called a penalty against Croatia during the group A World Cup soccer match in the opening game of the tournament at Itaquerao Stadium in Sao Paulo on June 12, 2014.
Brazil's Fred sits on the pitch as Croatian players Vedran Corluka, Dejan Lovren and Ivan Rakitic protest after the referee called a penalty against Croatia during the group A World Cup soccer match in the opening game of the tournament at Itaquerao Stadium in Sao Paulo on June 12, 2014.Frank Augstein—AP
Brazil's Fred sits on the pitch as Croatian players Vedran Corluka, Dejan Lovren and Ivan Rakitic protest after the referee called a penalty against Croatia during the group A World Cup soccer match in the opening game of the tournament at Itaquerao Stadium in Sao Paulo on June 12, 2014.
Robin van Persie of the Netherlands scores the teams first goal with a diving header in the first half during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group B match between Spain and Netherlands at Arena Fonte Nova on June 13, 2014 in Salvador, Brazil.
Costa Rica's Joel Campbell celebrates with the match ball after scoring against Uruguay during their 2014 World Cup Group D soccer match at the Castelao stadium in Fortaleza on June 14, 2014.
Masato Morishige and Yuto Nagatomo of Japan challenge Didier Drogba of the Ivory Coast during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group C match between the Ivory Coast and Japan at Arena Pernambuco on June 14, 2014 in Recife, Brazil.
Honduras' goalkeeper Noel Valladares bundles a shot from France's Karim Benzema, far right, into his net for an own goal during the group E World Cup soccer match between France and Honduras at the Estadio Beira-Rio in Porto Alegre, Brazil on June 15, 2014.
Thomas Mueller of Germany shoots and scores his team's fourth goal and completes his hat trick past Rui Patricio of Portugal during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group G match between Germany and Portugal at Arena Fonte Nova on June 16, 2014 in Salvador, Brazil.
Pepe of Portugal argues with Thomas Müller of Germany and gives him a headbutt during to the FIFA World Cup 2014 group G preliminary round match between Germany and Portugal at the Arena Fonte Nova Stadium in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil on June 16, 2014.
Referee Milorad Mazic uses vanishing spray to mark where the Germany wall must stand for a Portugal free kick during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group G match between Germany and Portugal at Arena Fonte Nova.
Clint Dempsey of the United States reacts after scoring his team's first goal past goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey of Ghana during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group G match between Ghana and the United States at Estadio das Dunas on June 16, 2014 in Natal, Brazil.
Igor Akinfeev of Russia fails to save a shot by Lee Keun-Ho of South Korea for South Korea's first goal during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group H match between Russia and South Korea at Arena Pantanal on June 17, 2014 in Cuiaba, Brazil.
Guillermo Ochoa of Mexico makes a save after a header by Thiago Silva of Brazil during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group A match between Brazil and Mexico at Castelao on June 17, 2014 in Fortaleza, Brazil.
Australia v Netherlands: Group B - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil
Match highlights are screened after the 2014 World Cup Group B soccer match between Spain and Chile at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro on June 18, 2014.
Uruguay's Luis Suarez celebrates after scoring his side's second goal during the group D World Cup soccer match between Uruguay and England at the Itaquerao Stadium in Sao Paulo, Brazil on June 19, 2014.
Lionel Messi of Argentina shoots and scores his team's first goal during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group F match between Argentina and Iran at Estadio Mineirao on June 21, 2014 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
Germany's Miroslav Klose celebrates after scoring against Ghana during their 2014 World Cup Group G soccer match at the Castelao arena in Fortaleza, Brazil on June 21, 2014.
US goalkeeper Tim Howard reacts after a goal from Portugal's forward Silvestre Varela during a Group G match between USA and Portugal at the Amazonia Arena in Manau. Brazil during the 2014 FIFA World Cup on June 22, 2014.
Spain's David Villa scores the team's first goal during the group B World Cup soccer match between Australia and Spain at the Arena da Baixada in Curitiba, Brazil on June 23, 2014.
Brazil's Neymar shoots to score against Cameroon during their 2014 World Cup Group A soccer match at the Brasilia national stadium in Brasilia, Brazil on June 23, 2014.
Mexico's coach Miguel Herrera celebrates Andres Guardado's goal during their 2014 World Cup Group A soccer match at the Pernambuco arena in Recife, Brazil on June 23, 2014.
Giorgio Chiellini claims he was bitten by Uruguay's Luis Suarez during the FIFA World Cup 2014 group D preliminary round match between Italy and Uruguay at the Estadio Arena das Dunas in Natal, Brazil on June 24, 2014.
Soccer Fans Gather To Watch US v Germany World Cup Match
Mauricio Pinilla of Chile shoots and hits the cross bar as goalkeeper Julio Cesar of Brazil looks on during the match between Brazil and Chile at Estadio Mineirao on June 28, 2014 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
Colombia's James Rodriguez scores a goal past Uruguay's Diego Godin, Alvaro Pereira, and Egidio Arevalo Rios during their game at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro on June 28, 2014.
Rafael Marquez gets called for a foul against Arjen Robben of the Netherlands in the box during the match between the Netherlands and Mexico at the Estadio Castelao in Fortaleza, Brazil on June 29, 2014.
Theofanis Gekas of Greece hits the post during a shootout in the match between Costa Rica and Greece at Arena Pernambuco on June 29, 2014 in Recife, Brazil.
Brazil Soccer WCup Belgium US
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Goalkeeper Krul of the Netherlands makes a save on a shot at goal by Costa Rica's Umana during a penalty shootout in their 2014 World Cup quarter-finals at the Fonte Nova arena in Salvador
APTOPIX Brazil Soccer 2014 WCup Brazil Germany
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Brazil Soccer WCup Germany Argentina
Brazil's Fred sits on the pitch as Croatian players Vedran Corluka, Dejan Lovren and Ivan Rakitic protest after the refe
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Frank Augstein—AP
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