By Piers Edwards*
In many ways, this was probably the news that Cameroon’s Issa Hayatou privately dreaded.
Some 111 years on from its founding, Fifa is now being technically run by an African for the first time – news which should of course be welcomed on the continent.
But the acting Fifa president could never be accused of courting the media, preferring instead to make his distance as large as possible.
Now though, a man who is far happier in the backrooms of power has been thrust into the limelight.
For the next 90 days, while Sepp Blatter is suspended, he will be centre stage – and he may well find the spotlight more heated than ever.
Following Blatter’s suspension by Fifa’s Ethics Committee, the long-standing Confederation of African Football president has taken interim control of world football’s governing body in his capacity as its most senior vice-president.
Born in northern Cameroon, Hayatou is the son of a local sultan and comes from a family of politicians – his brother was once the country’s prime minister.
Like Blatter, Hayatou is an arch politician – capable of reacting to the challenges coming his way with alacrity and skill.
Togo team attack
A sportsman in his youth, he has hugely expanded the traditional family field of influence – not just covering Cameroon, but first Africa, and now the world.
For the record, he has been a Fifa vice-president since 1992, an Executive Committee member since 1990, and he has been running African football since 1988.
The way in which Caf reacted to the gun attack on the Togo team at the 2010 Africa Cup of Nations makes for a good insight into Hayatou’s mind.
He refused to reveal the actions that Caf took to address the crisis – flying a plane to the area that night to deal with the situation on the ground – because he didn’t believe it was relevant for the public to know. In the vacuum of information, accusations against Caf’s handling abounded.
But then, as Tunde Adelakun – who has been working on an authorised biography of Hayatou – states, the latter is the son of a local ruler who was never once questioned in his official life.
“He is heir apparent to the throne of Garoua, and that tradition (of not having to answer questions) has followed him into football governance,” said Adelakun.
(Caf responded to Togo’s decision to withdraw from the 2010 event, following the tragedy in which two people died, by banning them from the next two tournaments –a decision the Court of Arbitration for Sport and Blatter helped overturn.)
With a wealth of experience in football administration – he was Cameroon’s director of sport in the mid-1980s – Hayatou is set to face a barrage of questions when he finally meets the press.
Social media is already raising some of the accusations levelled at Hayatou in the past – all of which he has denied.
Caf rule changes
Chief among these is his reprimand by the International Olympic Committee in 2011 over the nature of a payment he received from the defunct sports marketing company ISL between 1989 and 1999.
According to the IOC, Hayatou admitted receiving a payment but denied any corruption, saying the money was a gift for his confederation.
Then there were the allegations, heard by British MPs at a culture, media and sport committee in the House of Commons in 2011, that Hayatou had taken bribes related to Qatar’s 2022 World Cup bid, which he again denied.
Earlier this year, he also oversaw controversial changes to the body’s rules on age limits so that he can continue his role.
Caf officials used to have to relinquish power once they turned 70 – but that was changed this April when every member association voted to scrap the rule.
It means that Hayatou, now 69, can reapply for office when his current term ends in 2017.
The rule change follows success in recent years in adapting the statutes to limit potential opponents to Hayatou’s rule.
Caf previously brought in a rule that presidential candidates can only come from the ranks of its own executive committee, a tight-knit club closely controlled by Hayatou – a move that prevented Ivory Coast’s Jacques Anouma from challenging.
But his supporters will point to the following developments within African football as reasons to praise his work:
- Increasing Africa’s representation at the World Cup from two teams at the time of his appointment to five today
- Fighting for Fifa to introduce the World Cup rotation policy, which eventually came about in 2001 – and which ultimately led to South Africa becoming the first African nation to stage the event in 2010
- Doubling the size of the Africa Cup of Nations from 8 teams to 16
- Introducing youth championships for both Under-20s and Under-17s
- Reformatting the African Cup of Champions to the Caf Champions League in the mid-1990s, while also introducing a second tier club competition
- Implementing the African Women’s Championship
- Massively boosting both Caf’s finances and the amount handed out by the organisation to technical development on the continent
Hayatou, who has a serious kidney illness that requires regular dialysis sessions, is currently in Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde, and is expected to travel to Fifa headquarters in Zurich shortly.
Reacting to his ‘promotion’, he said he will not stand in February’s elections to replace Blatter but would help reform the organisation.
“We will also continue to cooperate fully with authorities and follow the internal investigation wherever it leads,” he said in a statement.
Hayatou tried to replace Blatter in the 2002 Fifa presidential elections – but failed to dislodge the Swiss.
The phrase “be careful what you wish for” now comes to mind.