When Jerome Champagne announced Monday that he would run for the presidency of FIFA, the world governing body of soccer, few outside the world of soccer administration had heard his name before. But Champagne, a former diplomat and FIFA adviser, can count on the backing of someone with a much more recognized name: Pele.
In a letter he wrote in November,Pele gave his strong endorsement to Champagne's presidential campaign, while also calling for FIFA to undertake reforms to be more representative of the world around it.
"Football today enjoys a lot of success," Pele, 73, wrote, "but also faces many problems requiring a strong and democratic FIFA with a vision in favor of everyone and a governance which is both universal and modern."
In his letter, Pele praises FIFA for taking "the World Cup to all countries and also the development programs" before urging global soccer's governing body to "adapt itself to the 21st century and to the world of today."
He calls the presidential election, set for the summer of 2015, vital for the long-term health of soccer. "I cannot stay away from a debate which is so important for the future of football," he added, before concluding, "I support Jerome Champagne and his vision."
After Champagne made his introduction to a room of British journalists at the Grand Connaught Rooms in London, a symbolic site where the English Football Association was founded in 1863, a video message featuring Pele was played.
"I know his vision of football and the future of the game," he said. "I trust him."
Champagne, a 55-year-old Frenchman, is the first to announce his intentions to run for the post. Until now, much of the discussion has centered around whether his former boss, Sepp Blatter, who has been president since 1998, will run for another four-year term. If Blatter does, then it is thought that Michel Platini, a former French international player who is currently president of European soccer's governing body, UEFA, could be his most formidable opponent.
Champagne has worked under both men. In 2010, Blatter fired him from his role as a political adviser for FIFA. He has since worked as a consultant with soccer federations and sports ministries in the developing world, an important link in his bid to contest the presidency. In an interview last week, he outlined his vision for FIFA, which includes plans to redistribute wealth, power and World Cup qualification spots away from Europe and toward Africa, Asia, Central and North America.
"This election is so important," he said. "It is about the future of soccer and what the game will look like in 2030."
At a long news conference Monday, Champagne reiterated his desire for a more democratic FIFA while adding his support for the greater use of technology in the game, the introduction of orange cards for the temporary exclusion of players in a game, full disclosure of FIFA salaries, and televised debates for the presidential candidates.
When pressed on his likely opponents for soccer's top job, he said he did not know whether Blatter was planning to stand but that "as a matter of politeness I informed him what I was planning to do." He denied suggestions that he was acting in collaboration with Blatter to smoke out other candidates.
"Some people say I am manipulated by him, but I tell you no," Champagne said. "I stand because I believe in what I am saying."
But he conceded that if Blatter did decide to stand for another term, his campaign was likely to founder. "He's someone of relevance," he added, while refusing to confirm he would even stay in the race if Blatter did decide to run again.
The backing of Pele will lift Champagne's long-shot campaign, but it will also open a new chapter in Pele's complicated relationship with FIFA and Blatter. Pele was barred from taking part in the draw for the 1994 World Cup by FIFA's president at the time, Joao Havelange, over corruption allegations that Pele had made against Havelange's son-in-law, Ricardo Teixeira, who was then the president of Brazil's soccer federation.
Later, when Pele was appointed Brazil's sports minister, he and Havelange clashed again over Pelé's Law, a piece of legislation aimed at forcing clubs to professionalize and loosen controls on player movement. Havelange threatened to bar Brazil from the 1998 World Cup if the law passed, but backed down after it did. Brazil lost to France in the 1998 final in Paris.
Since coming to power in 1998, Blatter has tried to repair FIFA's relationship with Pele and oversaw his naming as player of the century in 2000. Blatter has also deployed Pelé in a series of high-profile roles. In 2012, Pelé acted as an intermediary in clear-the-air talks between Blatter and the Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff, over the 2014 World Cup, which will be held in Brazil. Last week at the Ballon d'Or awards ceremony, Blatter handed an emotional Pelé the first-ever Prix d'Honneur, a lifetime achievement award.
© 2014 New York Times News Service