On the 26th of February, FIFA elected only the 9th president in its 112 year history. Gianni Infantino’s election as the successor to the disgraced Sepp Blatter marks the beginning of the end of one of FIFA’s darkest chapters.
FIFA had endured years of corruption allegations surrounding bribery for the hosting of the World Cups in Russia and Qatar, plus corruption allegations against many of its top brass. Of the 22 who voted on the destination of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, only three have not yet been suspected of corruption in some way. Whilst the situation had been murky since at least 2011, it wasn’t until May 2015 that the situation at FIFA really blew up, leading to Sepp Blatter’s resignation and ultimately to Infantino’s election.
Upon his election, Infantino pledged to restore the image of FIFA, to win back respect for the organisation, and to return discussions to football matters. Admirable aims, but a mammoth task for a man who, this time last year, had seemingly no intention of running for the office that he now holds. Indeed, it is clear that he is only heading FIFA now because of the spectacular political demise of both Blatter and UEFA ex-president Michel Platini, who had been hotly tipped to take over from Blatter.
Now that enough time has passed since his election for the dust to settle, questions can be asked without being clouded by emotion. Who is the new president? What were his highlights (and lowlights) whilst Secretary General at UEFA, European football’s governing body, and can we expect and trust him to really be the man to finally fix FIFA?
Gianni Infantino was born in 1970 in a small town in Switzerland. Before doing what every boy dreams of and becoming a football administrator, Infantino trained as a fully qualified lawyer. He joined the ranks of UEFA in 2000, before taking up the role of General Secretary in October 2009, a position that he held until his recent election to FIFA’s top job. Until being thrust into the public eye he had been a quiet figure, not one to publicly discuss his views. He had also expressed a fierce loyalty to Platini before his election in February, claiming that he would have dropped out of the race for the presidency had Platini been able to run himself. Whether or not Infantino actually wanted to run at all was an oft-pondered question during the run up to the election, and adds another intriguing layer to the plot now that he has actually gotten the job.
Much has been made of the fact that Infantino grew up a stone’s throw from the town in which Blatter lived as a child – I have even heard suggested that there is some significance to this, as if there is something in the water that makes football administrators engage in corruption. Of course, this is nothing more than coincidence, but it invites unfavourable comparisons that will be hard to shake for the new Swiss president.
Of more relevant concern should be his record whilst in his position as General Secretary of UEFA. Infantino enjoyed some successes in his role at UEFA. For starters, he championed the controversial Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules. Whether you love them (“they stop teams from overspending”) or hate them (“they stop smaller clubs spending big to break the monopoly of the established clubs”), this was one of Infantino’s centrepiece projects. Since its introduction in 2011, FFP has enforced a 70% reduction in aggregate losses across European teams that are bound by the rules. For those who argue that FFP prevents the rise of smaller clubs, Infantino has specifically called such arguments “noise [which has]not been proved in practice”.
He also oversaw the expansion of the European Championships, from 16 to 24 teams. This has been lauded by smaller nations who never got a realistic chance to qualify for the Euros under the old regime. The thinking behind this is sound, as it means that the qualification stages are more competitive for a longer time, as there are more spots up for grabs. Whether that is a good thing depends on whether you enjoy seeing an underdog battle it out against the odds (see Northern Ireland and Iceland) or whether you like quality over quantity. The expanded set up, however, also favours the stronger nations, making it much harder for teams like England, Germany and Spain (sorry Netherlands) to miss out on the final tournament.
Not to be stopped at an expanded Euros, Infantino has also advocated strongly for the expansion of the World Cup to 40 teams (rather than 32), and of course he became particularly adept at hosting the Champions’ League draw evenings.
However, it was not all fun and games for Infantino. Suggestions have been made that he did not do enough to investigate corruption and match-fixing within his own Confederation, with particular scrutiny being placed on UEFA’s investigations into the dealings of perennial Greek champions Olympiacos which have so far led to no action being taken against the club. It is surely mere coincidence that the son of one of the vice-presidents of Olympiacos, Theodore Theodoridis, was Infantino’s deputy during his time at UEFA and during the course of the investigations – indeed it should be pointed out that no interference by Infantino or Theodoridis into Olympiacos investigations has ever been proven. The point I am making is that UEFA’s structures make such interference, and even the appearance of interference, possible. This is exactly one of the issues at FIFA, and Infantino has made no moves to try and clear up this murky behaviour. Indeed, when the Greek government in 2015 tried to pass legislation to clean up corruption in Greek football, Infantino supported the Hellenic Football Federation (Greece’s FA) in their negotiations with the government, warning that Greece’s national team could be suspended if the government interfered too much. Whilst this is a standard position for FIFA and the football world generally (and is something that I will cover in a future blog), this is hardly the work of someone dedicated to transparency, anti-corruption, fairness and reform.
The above flags something else that should incur scepticism as to how genuine his reforming sentiment is. It highlights that Gianni Infantino is as much a part of the establishment as Blatter and Platini. He does not possess external views, and is part of the same set of self-interested groups that make up FIFA having been essentially promoted from within (as, it should be said, all of the candidates with realistic electability prospects would have been). He is also, as mentioned before, a close ally of Platini, and given that he would have deferred his candidacy in favour of Platini, one wonders whether or not they can possibly hold views that differ in any great depth. If he was a true reformer, surely he would have seen the folly in electing Platini. As Matt Scott succinctly put it, Infantino did not manage to get UEFA’s house in order during his time as Secretary General – so why is he allowed to upgrade to a bigger, badder home?
Despite painting a bleak picture of Infantino, it was almost much, much worse. Infantino’s election should in fact be seen as a shock, as Bahrain’s Sheikh Salman was the pre-election favourite. Impossible though it may seem, Salman’s election would have dragged FIFA’s reputation even lower, what with him possessing a human rights record that hovers at the very kindest suggestion somewhere south of ‘questionable’. A Salman presidency would also have been unlikely to reform FIFA in the ways that it desperately needs, and in many ways his election might have spelled the end for FIFA. Infantino’s victory at the polls at the very least allowed FIFA to dodge a Sheik Salman-shaped bullet to the head.
Because of this, it is tempting to say that Gianni Infantino is the best of a bad bunch, but even that is debatable. Jerome Champagne and Prince Ali bin Hussein both offered alternatives that were credible and might have been true reformers of FIFA, and whilst very much outsiders for the election they offered genuinely new ideas to change the organisation that were at least on a par with Infantino.
Regardless of which man had found himself occupying Blatter’s old office on the morning of the 27th of February, the task facing them would be the same; to put in place reforms to world football that would prevent the corruption of old and instead bring FIFA into the modern era of transparency, accountability, and back towards being an organisation that fans can trust to oversee their game.
Because it is here that the opportunity for corruption truly lies. People like Jack Warner, Chuck Blazer and all of the members of the motley crew that have turned world football into their own personal expenses account were merely making the most of a system that was ripe for exploitation. That is not to take away anything from their criminality, but it is to recognise that FIFA and its (lack of) accountability structures contributed massively to the scandals that have dogged the organisation since 2011, and which have threatened its very existence.
These are the things that need the full attention of people calling for change at FIFA, and not so much who occupies the driving seat – especially since the role and power of the FIFA President has been reduced.
Gianni Infantino is now the man ultimately responsible for fixing FIFA’s ills. Luckily for him, the same emergency congress that elected Infantino also voted in favour of a newly reformed structure and legal statutes for FIFA, meaning that some of the changes that are desperately needed at FIFA have actually already been made. Infantino is likely to benefit from this, but the measure of him as President will be how much farther he pushes the reform process. Despite his questionable past record and his status as one of the old guard, we must suspend our scepticism and at least let him have a crack at the job before judging him too quickly.
Institutional reform on the scale that is required at FIFA is a long, painful and incremental process. The trouble, as Infantino will soon discover, is that he doesn’t have a long time. Particularly when it is FIFA’s reputation on the line…