NASSAU, Bahamas (Reuters) - On the surface, CONCACAF’s congress on Thursday looked very different to the last time the regional confederation had gathered before a FIFA presidential election.
Back in 2011, with Trinidadian Jack Warner still at the helm of the governing body for soccer in North and Central America and the Caribbean, CONCACAF’s deliberations were held in a chain hotel in downtown Miami and were closed to the media.
On Thursday, football officials from the 41 member nations gathered in the up-market Vegas style, Atlantis resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, with media invited in.
There was a giant video screen that displayed professionally produced updates on CONCACAF’s activities and youthful CONCACAF staffers in branded uniform buzzed around, assisting the proceedings.
But while the new CONCACAF, led by the personable Jeffrey Webb, looks very different to the rather shabby organization led by Warner, the politics of the organization proved to be remarkably similar.
The formalities had barely been dealt with before the first of 10 federation representatives began their eulogies to FIFA president Sepp Blatter, whose organization has faced numerous allegations of corruption in the past four years.
It was a familiar scene to anyone who had witnessed CONCACAF representatives at FIFA congresses under Warner.
Throughout Blatter’s reign, the region has been a rock-solid stronghold for the FIFA president, with the Caribbean nations in particular loyal supporters.
It was the very same process of a FIFA election that led to Warner’s downfall four years ago when he organized a private meeting between the Qatari challenger to Blatter, Mohammed Bin Hammam, in Port of Spain and evidence emerged of brown envelopes stuffed with $40,000 being handed out to Caribbean officials.
Many of those in the room were the same faces that voted as a block under Warner’s strong man rule and a good number of them had been implicated in the cash-for-votes scandal.
Sat on the podium was CONCACAF’s Jamaican vice-president Captain Horace Burrell who was suspended for three months from all football-related activities by FIFA following their investigation into the Port of Spain meeting.
The most remarkably sycophantic speech in support of Blatter came from Osiris Guzman of the Dominican Republic, who was banned from the sport for 30 days and fined by FIFA. It was Guzman who spoke of Blatter in the same terms as historical figures such as Moses, Jesus Christ and Nelson Mandela.
The current president of the Caribbean Football Union Gordon Derrick, who the day before had held his own mini-congress, had also been reprimanded and fined in the same 2011 case.
Four years ago, according to Warner, Blatter offered CONCACAF delegates an extra one million in FIFA funding.
This time Blatter offered their region an extra place in the World Cup.
As speaker after speaker hailed Blatter, the three other candidates for the FIFA presidency, all sat in the hall and listened -- they could do little else.
All three had asked for the opportunity to outline their ideas for the future of FIFA and all were been denied that chance.
“I asked President Webb three weeks ago in writing if I was allowed to address the congress and that request was turned down,” said Dutch FA chief Michael van Praag.
In contrast, at UEFA’s congress in March, all four candidates had been given the chance to make an address.
Prince Ali bin al-Hussein looked on in dismay as the speeches continued and it was too much for former Portugal international Luis Figo who afterwards said: “When some speak and others are silenced, democracy and football lose”.
Until Thursday, Webb had been careful to present himself as impartial in the election process but he could barely contain his delight at the pro-Blatter interventions saying they had sent a “clear message”.
CONCACAF then held their own internal elections but for every single post, including Webb’s position as president, there was only one candidate.
There was not even a show of hands as all candidates were elected by ‘acclamation’.
Not all in CONCACAF support Blatter but those delegates known to be privately in favor of change in FIFA were reluctant to talk on the record, several responding to questions about the congress with shakes of the head or laughter.
A lot has changed in CONCACAF over the last four years and their events and tournaments are certainly more professionally organized and promoted and their grassroots work is worthy.
But when it comes to their politics in FIFA not much appears to have changed since the days of Warner.
Editing by Sudipto Ganguly