Rise of the dark horse

Football : Newly elected president Infantino faces a tough road ahead as he seeks to restore FIFA's credibility
Last Updated 27 February 2016, 18:26 IST

Gianni Infantino looked out at the people who rule global football, the members of FIFA. Once, twice, he tried to begin his speech, clearly stunned. He had just won the FIFA presidency on Friday, but seemed to be still sorting out how it had happened.

Infantino’s ascent to perhaps the most powerful position in sports was hardly foreseeable several months ago. As football’s beleaguered governing body reeled from one crisis — that of widespread corruption allegations and arrests among its leadership — it seemed to be headed for another. Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, a member of Bahrain’s royal family, was considered the favorite to become the next FIFA president in Friday’s election but faced questions about possible connections to the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in his country.

Instead, Infantino, a Swiss administrator, will try to lead global football out of its darkest period after FIFA’s voting members, in an upset, chose him to follow the suspended Sepp Blatter. Infantino, 45, becomes just the ninth president in FIFA’s 111-year history, a reality that is emblematic of its long-embedded resistance to change.

Football’s leaders are under intense scrutiny from law enforcement officials in the United States and Switzerland. Many of the game’s top officials have been charged with crimes, including corruption, bribery and money laundering.

Against that backdrop, FIFA’s members accepted a significant shift Friday, ratifying an extensive package of governance reforms — including measures that diminish the president’s power — before electing Infantino to implement the changes, which he endorsed during his campaign.

The long-derided executive committee — notorious for decades of scandals, bribery and political intrigue — will be replaced by a 36-member FIFA council that must include at least six women. “A new era has been started as we speak,” said Infantino, the secretary general of UEFA, European football’s governing body, since 2009. “You will be proud of FIFA. You will be proud of what FIFA will do for football.”

The balloting that led to Infantino’s victory may have quietly yielded another winner. In the aftermath of the election, while Infantino was greeting well-wishers, numerous officials from other national federations stopped at the opposite end of the dais. That was where Sunil Gulati, the president of US Soccer and a member of FIFA’s executive committee, was sitting.

Gulati and the rest of the US Soccer delegation had worked the floor of delegates between the first and second ballots, trying to swing votes to Infantino, who gained a startling 27 votes from one ballot to the next. Afterward, many officials pointed to US Soccer’s role in the result — an important development because the full congress votes on World Cup hosts and US Soccer is likely to submit a bid during Infantino’s tenure to host the 2026 World Cup. “I think it’s a good day for the sport,” Gulati said. “We have a president we think very highly of and respect.”

After the first ballot, Infantino had 88 votes and was followed by Salman (85), Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan (27) and Jerome Champagne (7), a former FIFA official from France. The result was surprising in that Infantino had a slight lead — Salman was said to believe he had the support of close to 90 delegates coming in — but it was clear that the decisions of Ali’s delegates would make the difference on the second ballot.

One of those delegates was US Soccer, which supported Ali last May when he was defeated handily by Blatter and again on the first ballot Friday. Gulati had told Infantino, however, that US Soccer would support him if it became clear the election was a two-horse race. After a short meeting with Ali between ballots, during which Ali praised Infantino, Gulati and US Soccer set to work. As many as 10 federations from CONCACAF, the region for North and Central America and the Caribbean, are believed to have followed US Soccer and switched from Ali to Infantino, as well as a handful in Asia and Europe.

Tokyo Sexwale, a South African businessman who withdrew as a candidate just before the first ballot, worked as an advocate for Infantino, too, persuading an African delegate to switch.

All of it added up to a surprising margin for Infantino, who won with room to spare, totaling 115 votes on the second ballot. Asked afterward about the makeup of Infantino’s voters, Gulati smiled.

“I’m much more familiar with how it got to 115 than the first 88,” he said. Now, Infantino, who hails from Brig, a tiny village near Blatter’s hometown, Visp, must try to lead FIFA out of the scandal that brought Blatter’s 40-year career at FIFA to an end. American and Swiss authorities have accused dozens of football officials of diverting millions of dollars from the sport into their own pockets. Several of the sport’s leaders were apprehended in two police raids at the luxury Baur au Lac hotel here.

Blatter and Platini were suspended for six years by FIFA for ethics violations related to that payment, and it was only because of Platini’s suspension that Infantino decided to run for FIFA president.

After entering the race on the final day to declare a candidacy, Infantino embraced the challenge of convincing the delegates that he was not simply a Eurocentric leader. Running in his first election since he was 18 — when he won the presidency of his local football club by promising that his mother would wash the team’s uniforms each week —Infantino traveled the world to meet with federation leaders.

In the end, he did enough, promising to return more money to the member federations — “the money of FIFA is your money, it’s not the money of the FIFA president” — as well as pushing an agenda of changed governance.  Infantino also has ideas for expansion, including a 40-team World Cup and the possibility of multiple countries hosting a World Cup.

How much of it comes to fruition remains to be seen. Many of the organization’s members still prefer the status quo. But Infantino was bullish, even when it was suggested that those who supported his opponents might make it difficult for him to enact all he desires.
“I don’t agree that football is divided,” he said. “Today, it was an election but not a war. It was a competition, but not a fight.”

He held up his hands. “Now we turn the page,” he said. “Now we start to work.”

(Published 27 February 2016, 15:45 IST)

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