Life after Sepp Blatter: Major challenges await Fifa’s new president Gianni Infantino

World governing body's new president praises early reform but division among members, World Cup bidding and corruption investigations are just tip of the iceberg for the 45-year-old Swiss.
New Fifa president Gianni Infantino gestures during his first news conference following his election in Zurich on February 26, 2016.  AFP PHOTO / OLIVIER MORIN
New Fifa president Gianni Infantino gestures during his first news conference following his election in Zurich on February 26, 2016. AFP PHOTO / OLIVIER MORIN

Zurich // Fifa’s new president Gianni Infantino on Friday faced the mountainous task of reforming and uniting world football, with a pile of crises from the scandal-ridden Sepp Blatter era needing urgent action.

Infantino, an executive at European football confederation Uefa, promised an end to the dark days at Fifa following his convincing election win.

But the Swiss-Italian national, 45, was immediately met with multiple challenges as football powerful players including key corporate partners must still be convinced that Fifa can mend its ways.

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Infantino will also have to prioritise the interests of developing football nations in Asia and Africa, two continents that publicly backed election runner-up Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa on hopes that a non-European would lead Fifa after Swiss national Blatter’s 18-year presidency.

“We will work tirelessly, starting with myself,” the shaven-headed, multi-lingual new Fifa president said.

“You will be proud of Fifa. You will be proud of what Fifa will do for football.”

‘Ground-breaking’ reforms

Infantino said governance reforms passed just hours before his election win were “groundbreaking” and that implementing them would be a priority.

They include changes to Fifa’s management, limiting Infantino’s powers compared to the authority held by Blatter.

There will be a 12-year term limit for top officials and salaries will be disclosed. The all-powerful executive committee will be renamed a Fifa council and football’s multi-billion dollar business activities will be run separately from football politics.

But there was no decision to create an outside watchdog that has been widely demanded as the only way to solve Fifa’s corruption crisis.

Top World Cup sponsors such as credit card giant Visa said after the vote that “independent oversight of the reforms” was still the best strategy to ensure real change.

Infantino has promised to bring in “independent and respected voices” to Fifa but has not given details.

Experts said that corporate partners – who demanded an end to the sleaze that came to characterise the Blatter era – will be watching to see if Infantino’s desire to make changes goes beyond rhetoric.

Jeff Thinnes, a US consultant to global corporations on ethics and governance, said that the Fifa vote is “only a start”.

“Given the culture of Fifa, a very corrupt culture down through the national associations, it is going to be a long slog before what is on paper becomes what is in practice,” he said.

‘A football candidate’

Infantino downplayed divisions in world football, saying he had won “an election but not a war”.

Sheikh Salman, a royal from Bahrain, had been the pre-poll favourite, and his defeat was a blow to the ambitions of Asia and especially the Arab world, where there had been anticipation of a powerful new voice in sport.

“The new Fifa needs to become more inclusive and reflect the diversity of world football,” the sheikh said after the vote, pledging to work with Infantino.

India, a supporter of Sheikh Salman, said it hoped to receive “due importance” under Fifa’s new president.

The executive committee of Africa’s football confederation had also endorsed the sheikh, but some African nations were believed to have voted for Infantino, especially in the second round.

The new Fifa president has insisted that he was not a European candidate, but “a football candidate” and touted his relationships across the globe.

A campaign pledge to more than double the amount of Fifa funds given back to national associations to over $1.2 billion (Dh4.4 trillion) in total every four years could help bolster support among cash-strapped federations.

‘Forgive and forget’

Blatter, suspended from football for six years over ethics violations, congratulated Infantino on his win, but left his successor with an unprecedented mess to fix.

The US justice department has charged 39 people within world football and two companies over graft going back decades, with trials that could start this year.

Switzerland is probing Blatter over criminal mismanagement and is investigating possible corruption during the bidding for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, won by Russia and Qatar.

Openly cooperating with the criminal investigations will be a crucial sign of good will, experts said, but the controversial World Cups could pose tougher challenges.

“I assume Russia will go ahead as planned,” said Patrick Nally, a prominent sports marketing executive with long-standing Fifa expertise.

“In regards to Qatar he needs a quick and independent review and if, as I think it will, be too complicated [costly] for Fifa to withdraw,” then Infantino needs “to get the membership to forgive and forget, make it a success and concentrate on better things for the future.”

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Published: February 27, 2016 04:00 AM


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