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  • Op-Ed - How Infantino Won the FIFA Presidency - and What Next?


    02/29/16

    Infantino aims to show a more inclusive style of leadership (Getty)
    (ATR) New FIFA president Gianni Infantino promises to “work tirelessly” to restore the federation’s tarnished image in his election victory press conference. But with the U.S. and Swiss probes into FIFA corruption set to disrupt his first months in office it won't be easy to move on from the past.

    Shellshocked after beating frontrunner Sheikh Salman in the second round of voting, polling 115 votes, the 45-year-old told a press conference soon after he was elected to replace the disgraced Sepp Blatter that he felt “a lot of emotions” and would probably need some time “to chill out and see what has happened”.

    In reality, there’ll be little time for that. Against the backdrop of ongoing U.S. and Swiss investigations into a FIFA bribery and corruption scandal spanning more than two decades, Infantino has to hit the ground running. He talked about FIFA entering a “new era” but he knows full well that the shadow of Blatter’s scandal-plagued reign casts a long shadow and he’ll have to navigate more troubled times. The FBI might have left FIFA alone this week, but they’ll be knocking at the federation’s door in the months to come.

    Infantino’s triumph was nothing if not opportunistic. He engineered a victory from a low base of support. A few months ago he had absolutely no interest in standing for the FIFA presidency, with now-banned former UEFA chief Michel Platini in the running. When Platini was suspended and Europe was scrambling to find another candidate to maintain UEFA’s influence in world football politics, the Swiss was ushered to the fore. His campaign, backed by VERO Communications, built up a head of steam in recent weeks as he secured endorsements from over 70 federations and Salman's presidential effort stuttered and fell apart in the run-in. Now Infantino finds himself the most powerful man in world football.

    Summing up his predicament in his speech to FIFA delegates, he said: “Destiny, fate everything happens for a reason… some months ago I started an exciting fantastic journey, a journey I was not thinking to embrace.”

    “Referencing FIFA’s escalating crisis in autumn 2015," he said: “You have two choices - You hide and wait until it passes or you stand up and try to do the right thing.” Infantino was persuaded to fill the void left by Platini. “I am not afraid of taking my responsibilities and doing what is right for football and FIFA,” was his interpretation of being the reluctant FIFA candidate from Europe.

    He spectacularly rose to the occasion on the day. Seamlessly flitting between English, Spanish, Italian and French in a passionate address to FIFA delegates, Infantino impressed and overshadowed his opponents uncharismatic speeches and bland platitudes, save for Sexwale’s rabble-rousing finish to his lacklustre FIFA campaign. The amiable South African millionaire businessman spoke off the cuff for 13 minutes of his allotted 15, speaking like a seasoned politician. Before withdrawing from the FIFA race on stage, he brought the house down saying "If it’s Gianni, it’s a party. If it’s Prince Ali, iut’s a party. If it’s Sheikh Salman it’s a party. If it’s Jerome, it’s a party. Of course if it was me it would be a greater party.”

    Infantino’s articulate appeal may have won over a few floating voters in the first round. But it was the line “The money of FIFA is your money and has to serve for the development of football” that hit home the hardest, earning him warm applause. He went on to outline pledges to increase the development grants to FIFA’s 209 member associations – a surefire tactic to win support, one employed successfully by Blatter to lock up votes in last year’s election.

    Voting Alliance Seals Victory

    But were it not for U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati seen lobbying frantically between the first and second round of voting, Infantino may never have ascended the FIFA throne.

    Neck and neck with the Asian football president Salman, 88 and 85 in the first ballot, Prince Ali – with 27 votes – proved to be the kingmaker to shut out his arch foe from Bahrain.

    Gulati revealed to reporters shortly after FIFA’s new boss was declared that there was a voting alliance between Infantino and Prince Ali.

    U.S. Soccer announced on Thursday it was going to support Prince Ali again after backing the Jordanian’s failed attempt to oust Blatter last year. “It was a tough decision and set the stage for today. We told Gianni last night that we would support Prince Ali but also gave him the assurance that when it mattered, if it mattered that we’d be with him,” Gulati said.

    Asked what message Gulati was giving to Prince Ali voters in the hustling between voting rounds, when he was seen from the media tribune scurrying around the congress floor, he said: “In that intervening period we had a good chat with Prince Ali and also with Gianni - and the three of us.”

    Most of Prince Ali’s 27 votes were siphoned off to support Infantino; Ali pulled
    Sheikh Salman congratulates the new FIFA chief (Getty)
    just 4 votes in the second ballot.

    I’m told that Caribbean Football Union federations and other CONCACAF members deserted Ali and Sheikh Salman and swung behind Infantino.

    With Salman under fire over allegations of human rights abuses linked to his involvement in the pro-democracy protests of 2011 and a refusal to accept some FIFA reforms, his election would have done little to halt the naysayers claiming he represented the ‘same old FIFA’.

    Gulati agreed with the suggestion that Salman’s election would have led to continuing controversy and was a motivating factor in voting against him. “For some that was probably true,” he said, declining to comment further.

    Uniting a Divided FIFA

    Salman’s polling of 88 votes in the second round, many from Africa, suggests a FIFA family divided. This was later confirmed by several delegates who didn’t back Infantino and told me he can only win their support by delivering on his manifesto pledges.

    “I don’t agree that football is divided,” Infantino told the press conference. “Today is was an election not a war, it was a sporting contest. An election you win, you lose and life goes one. I have great relationships in Africa.”

    Time will tell if he can win favour on the continent in his three years and four months in office until the next election. But he was careful in his speech and later comments to widen his appeal. “I want to be the president of all of you, all 209 associations,” he said. “I will show the whole world that I am not the candidate of Europe… football is universal”.

    As
    Five candidates became four when Sexwale dropped out (Getty)
    for the critics saying Infantino represents the old guard of FIFA, he did little to shake off the notion by telling reporters “I have strong and dear thoughts for Michel Platini right now”. Natural, that he wanted to give thanks to the man he has worked side by side with at UEFA for so many years, but the Swiss lawyer will need to put his own stamp on FIFA very quickly to put the reckless governance and ill-gotten gains of FIFA’s crooked bigwigs behind him.

    He’s talking a good game so far. “We will work tirelessly to make sure we bring football back to FIFA and FIFA back to football,” he told reporters, repeatedly promising to “restore the image and respect of FIFA”.

    Reforms and Revenue Streams

    Infantino’s major undertaking is to overhaul FIFA’s governance and structures through implementation of what he touted as “groundbreaking reforms” passed by the congress on Friday morning. “We are going to win back this respect through hard work and commitment,” he said.

    He vowed to work in the best interests of the federation's stakeholders – national associations, leagues, clubs, players and, crucially, fans - and was quick to thank the FIFA staff whose morale has nosedived as the governing body's crisis has escalated.

    Acting secretary general Markus Kattner looks to be on the way out, with Infantino set to appoint a non-European to the post in the coming weeks as part of his shake-up of FIFA. With FIFA facing a $550 million deficit for the past year because of massive lawyer bills and the failure to attract new sponsors and renew other contracts, Infantino has earmarked getting FIFA’s finances in order as a major priority in his first weeks along with investing money in the development of federations.

    Infantino will sit down with FIFA’s top officials and “look at where we can reduce costs… and that will be easily done”. Pointing to his “vast experience” in crunching the figures as UEFA general secretary, he said: “Sponsors and broadcasters need to regain trust in FIFA and football. If we can do this, I believe revenue streams will increase.”

    Certainly, US Soccer president and FIFA executive Gulati believes Infantino can deliver based on his “impressive” track record at UEFA. “He has done a terrific job as UEFA general secretary. I think his values are in the right place. He is open to some new ideas and open to talking about the ones that we don’t agree on.”

    Labelling the approval of reforms as “terrific accomplishments” – from centralized integrity checks, independent audit and compliance, transparency of salaries, creation of a 36-member FIFA Council to putting more women in decision-making positions at FIFA, Gulati said: “He doesn’t have a choice about bringing them in, it’s going to happen.

    “Now you have to operationalise them and I think Gianni can get that done.”

    Reported in Zurich by Mark Bisson

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