Gianni Infantino | The master of ceremonies
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Once seen as a reserve captain navigating the stormy waters at the world’s most powerful sporting body, the FIFA chief has now dropped anchor fully and is sailing ahead with his expansionist agenda

December 04, 2022 03:44 am | Updated 04:42 pm IST

In the summer of 2015, when world football’s governing body FIFA was embroiled in a series of explosive corruption scandals with president Sepp Blatter at the helm, Gianni Infantino was leading a rather charmed life as general secretary of UEFA, European football’s leading organisation.

The Swiss was more widely known as the man who conducted the draw ceremonies of various UEFA competitions, including the crown jewel among club events, the Champions League. Where FIFA can often mimic the raucous atmosphere that’s seen at pre-bout weigh-ins, Infantino’s role required him to present a flat yet genial face without eliciting from the audience the usual gasps and whoops.

In less than a year, however, Infantino, after a series of dramatic events, rose to become the president of FIFA. Blatter, who had resigned for presiding over a dishonest structure but was in charge on an interim basis, and Michel Platini, the then UEFA president who was expected to succeed Blatter, were both banned because of corruption allegations. The stoic master of ceremonies was now in a position to smilingly stare down the world.

It is perhaps this technocratic image of Infantino, his sophisticated demeanour and fluency in as many as five languages (English, German, French, Italian and Spanish) that landed him arguably the most powerful post in all of sport.

A few months earlier, Swiss police had raided FIFA officials over corruption charges and an investigation was launched into the controversial allotment of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosting rights to Russia and Qatar, respectively. The bribes and kickbacks were alleged to be worth more than $150 million, forming a part of an international investigation spanning three decades.

In the years since, more than half of the 22-member executive committee that had decided the World Cup hosts for 2018 and 2022 have been discredited for getting mired in financial irregularities of varying degrees. Infantino was considered enough of an outsider to not have his hands sullied by these misconducts, and enough of an insider with the knowhow to run giant sports governing bodies, who could clean up the mess.

A lawyer and a career sports administrator, Infantino was also not the stereotypical FIFA president — there have only been two fulltime heads in the four decades before Infantino — possessing Machiavellian traits that are essential to play the politics of patronage that’s commonplace in most global sporting institutions.

In fact, at a campaign event in 2016 ahead of the FIFA election, he said he would unveil a plan for his first 90 days in the hot seat. “Why 90 days?” he said. “A politician usually takes 100 days, but I’m not a politician.”

Not an agent of change

But the FIFA president’s role is not like that of a goalkeeper, who is most effective when least conspicuous. Infantino may have used all the right words, like transparency and good governance, and may not have yet displayed the all-consuming desire to wield the extreme power that comes with being the president, but no longer is he seen as the agent of change he promised to be.

Two things aid this status quo. The structure of FIFA is such that each of the 211 member nations have a vote, regardless of how big or small a footballing nation they are, leaving the door open for officials to game the system.

Ahead of his 2016 election, a report in the Guardian revealed that he had promised each of the member nations $5m over four years and each of six continental federations were to be paid $40m.

Though this is a legitimate developmental corpus that has aided football activities in many nations, there were past instances of this fund being weaponised. And there is an increasing trend of sports administrators, who have come to resemble marketing professionals dabbling in sport on the side, having links with big capital and authoritarian governments.

Under Infantino, FIFA’s ideas have been expansionist, some of those with good reason. As he had at UEFA when the Euros went from 16 teams to 24, he has overseen an increase in the size of the World Cup from the current 32 teams to 48 (2026 onwards), nearly doubling the number of places for Asia and Africa.

The rousing performances from the nations of these two continents at the ongoing tournament in Qatar lend credence to the argument that there is much-untapped potential in the developing world and the global showpiece of the sport should reflect that.

However, the 52-year-old’s other pet projects such as a biennial World Cup and an expanded Club World Cup that is held every four years in addition to the annual championship seem clear money-making exercises that can remake the international calendar, falling afoul of continental bodies, including those from Europe and South America. The latter event was even awarded to China for 2021 before being cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Four years ago, Infantino tried to strike a $25 billion deal with Japanese conglomerate SoftBank to pledge some of FIFA’s assets and use the money to create new club and national team competitions, ostensibly to increase sponsorship revenue and money from broadcast deals.

Infantino stance on breakaway league

Most recently in 2021, he remained silent, until the very end, even as a bunch of super-rich clubs in Europe sought to create a closed-door breakaway league, threatening the very foundations of the game, much to the chagrin of UEFA. European nations saw Infantino’s conduct as a sign that he wanted to diminish them and increase his popularity in the developing world, much like how Blatter had done during his 17-year reign.

Against this backdrop, Infantino’s statement ahead of the current World Cup that critics should not be handing “moral lessons” in light of allegations of large-scale human rights violations in Qatar, and that Europeans should be apologising “for the next 3,000 years” for their earlier actions (a reference to their imperialist past) was not lost on anyone.

Yet, in the absence of any reports of financial impropriety since he took over and his efforts in leading FIFA out of its most serious crisis to date, Infantino remains popular. There has at best been a shuffling of his support base; he has managed to rankle and distance old friends — he worked at UEFA for nearly two decades — while finding new allies along the way.

So much so that news emerged last month that he would be re-elected unopposed for a third term at the 73rd FIFA Congress in Kigali, Rwanda, next year. Once seen as a reserve captain navigating the stormy FIFA sea, Infantino has dropped anchor fully.

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