Infantino must act before the small cracks of light are covered again
It is telling of the expectations to the FIFA presidential elections Friday 26 February in Zürich that the spontaneous reaction after the battle was a sigh of relief over who did not come out victorious.
The alleged violator of human rights, the suspected vote-buyer and the media hostile sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim el Khalifa from Bahrain, apparently the favourite of no less than Russia’s president Putin, can once again withdraw to relative obscurity as president of the Asian Football Council. The support from the next World Cup hosts Russia and Qatar and from the Olympic kingmaker, sheikh Al Sabah from Kuwait, surprisingly turned out as non- sufficient.
The hundreds of football leaders and employees that may still bear a fondness for FIFA in their hearts, are relieved of having the name of their mother association and perhaps their personal names dragged through the mud in another round of unanswered questions about torture of Bahraini national players, disappeared million-dollar grants for football development, suppressed Asian corruption affairs and so forth.
But once the relief is over, the expectations to Gianni Infantino, since 2009 Secretary General of UEFA, are just as modest as to the remaining group of candidates: Infantino does not represent a coming of a new era – Süddeutsche Zeitung calls him “Blatter light” – but at least you cannot exclude in advance, that he will implement and consolidate the reforms passed by FIFA’s extraordinary congress with a resounding majority. The same reforms, which, by the way, Infantino and UEFA successfully strangled when they were presented the first time in 2012 and 2013.
It is some kind of achievement to do what Infantino has done over the past four months: To jump in as a place holder for his boss, UEFA President Michel Platini, in case the latter should be thrown out of the election campaign, and then travel the whole world to overturn in a short while the massive aversions against Europeans and European football that has characterised FIFA during all 18 years Sepp Blatter ruled.
Blatter was elected in a direct confrontation with the then UEFA President Lennart Johansson from Sweden, under circumstances that can be friendly described as dubious, at a time when the notion “brown envelopes” became famous in the global football debate.
The rivalry between UEFA and FIFA was put on hold when Blatter in 2007 ensured that his protégé Michel Platini could topple Johansson as head of UEFA. But the UEFA administration headed by Infantino, was never deeply in love with their counterparts at FIFA, and Platini’s emotions for his master cooled considerably as it became clear that Blatter would not fulfill his promises of leaving FIFA’s top position in the hands of Platini.
Considering that an almost two-third majority of the FIFA delegates re-elected Sepp Blatter as late as in May 2015 it was not likely that a UEFA candidate would win this latest election, especially not if the candidate was not Michel Platini himself.
Sepp Blatter was quick to welcome Infantino through the media, noting that he had shared a glass of glühwein with him around Christmas, equipping the newcomer with some tips for election campaigns in football. In spite of this heartiness there is no reason to believe that Infantino was Blatter’s man Friday morning before the elections.
But Infantino may have learned the necessary from Blatter over the heated wine or by observation. For Infantino spent most of his electoral speech to congress chattering in five languages on how wonderful it had been to visit so many precious places in the world, flattering almost any FIFA member country. Yet one message was delivered short and clear to the delegates who answered with applause:
“The money of FIFA is your money – not the money of the FIFA President!”
Infantino secured his victory following exactly the recipe used by his predecessors Blatter and Havelange since 1974: To promise expanding of the World Cup (this time from 32 to 40 teams) and to raise the regular grants from FIFA to the national federations (= the voters). In the next quadrennial Infantino has promised to send no less than 5 million US dollars to each member country.
That is FIFA classic, a language universally understood by the football people.
On top of this, the new FIFA President can look back at an unusually skillful lobbying process. After the close race in the first voting round where Infantino got 88 votes against 85 to the sheikh, it was surprising to see how all 34 votes except three delivered on the remaining candidates, Jordan’s Prince Ali Bin Hussein (27 votes) and the Frenchman Jérôme Champagne (7), were immediately transferred to Infantino in the second voting round, securing him a clear majority. He received 115 votes, sheikh Salman increased his share only to 88, Prince Ali was left with four votes and Jérôme Champagne with a blank sheet.
This can be no coincidence but a result of intense lobbying from UEFA with potential allies around the world in the weeks and months before.
It is noteworthy that the former head of communication at UEFA, the English Mike Lee, was hired in to help Infantino. Lee has for more than ten years run the most efficient consultancy firm in world sport, Vero Communications, who has helped Qatar to the hosting rights of the FIFA World Cup, Olympic Games to Rio and PyeongChang, Youth Olympics to Buenos Aires, and countrymen like Seb Coe, Brian Cookson and Louise Martin to the driver’s seats of international athletics, cycling and the Commonwealth Games. In Zürich the company secured yet another trophy, one of the most desired in the business.
Alliances still needed
The new FIFA President will still need strong alliances to support him, perhaps even more so in the future.
In his acceptance speech, Gianni Infantino stated that FIFA’s troubled days are now over, but that seems to be a prediction he will have a hard time making real.
First and foremost neither the FBI nor the Swiss authorities have concluded their criminal investigations into FIFA, and although they refrained from another series of spectacular arrests at this congress, it is likely that new names will be added to the 41 – 39 individuals plus two companies – that already appear in the indictments.
Moreover FIFA stands at the risk of losing around one third of its reserves in the years to come – approximately 500 out of 1,5 million US dollars – because sponsors are pulling out.
Infantino has only little time to convince them that FIFA is now in a safe pair of hands. This must be done by carrying out all elements in the reform package with rigor and efficiency.
His starting point is, however, a weakened presidency thanks to the same reforms. In the new structure the president must entrust all the commercial and daily business activities to a stronger CEO. At the same time, little has changed in the new FIFA Council, replacing the ill-reputed Executive Committee, where the members will still be appointed by the six continental confederations - UEFA, CAF, AFC, CONCACAF, CONMEBOL and OFC – and not directly by FIFA’s own congress.
Risk of decentralised corruption
This democratic disharmony is for the FIFA President to navigate in, and the challenge becomes only greater as the six confederations are not subject to specific reforms to the same extent as FIFA’s central body.
There are, in other words, a risk that FIFA centrally will clean its house, while the entrenched corruption it outsourced to regional bodies in countries where the authorities and the media are unwilling or unable to see through the financial management.
In his UEFA career, Gianni Infantino has not made his name by strong visibility or appetite for controversy. Shoulder by shoulder with Michel Platini, he has buried allegations of vote-buying when Poland and Ukraine won the right to host the Euro 2012, as well as politically sensitive match-fixing cases in Turkey, Greece and Russia.
Yet, UEFA is generally viewed as a much more credible and effectively managed organisation than FIFA. Infantino must work to transfer this credibility to his work in FIFA. He will soon have to show determination and readiness to disturb the superficial cordiality and shoulder-rubbing among the alpha males of the football family.
The surname Infantino is derived from the Latin word for child, and you can take this as an omen of a fresh start towards better times. But the child has to grow up quickly and be ready to confront the realities of football. Otherwise the small cracks of light opened by this congress in the dark vaults of FIFA will soon be covered again.
- WIll FIFA give us reform - or give us the finger? 26 February 2016