Friday,21 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1285, (3 - 9 March 2016)
Friday,21 September, 2018
Issue 1285, (3 - 9 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The new face of football

Newly elected FIFA President Infantino has the unenviable task of cleaning up the polluted organisation, Alaa Abdel-Ghani reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

The new president of FIFA, Gianni Infantino, is Swiss, just like his disgraced predecessor Sepp Blatter. They also come from the Valais region of Switzerland, their homes just six miles apart. But the hope is that the difference in conduct between Infantino and Blatter will be measured in light years.

The new president of world football’s governing body is expected to play under new rules of the game after he eventually won a second round of voting in Zurich on Friday, polling 115 votes from the available 207 delegates, 27 more than his closest rival and slight favourite Sheikh Salman Al-Khalifa of Bahrain. Prince Ali of Jordan, who took Blatter to a second round of voting last year with a surprisingly high 73 votes, came up lame this time, securing only seven.

Infantino, the UEFA’s secretary-general, takes over at a time when FIFA is going through its worst period in its 112-year history. Criminal investigations in the US and Switzerland, which started in May last year after the notorious dawn hotel swoop in Zurich, have resulted in the indictment of dozens of football officials for corruption, many of them serving or former presidents of national or continental associations. Blatter was forced to stand down and was later suspended from football for six years for breaching ethics guidelines. His vice-president Michel Platini met a similar fate.

Even if Infantino wants to go off course, he will have a hard time doing so. On the day he was elected, so, too key reforms were passed to help make FIFA a more transparent and accountable organisation. The reforms, said to be just as important as the arrival of a new president, include limiting the organisation’s president to three four-year terms in office. This truncated term is crucial. Infantino became just the third head of FIFA since 1974, after Joao Havelange clung to power for 24 years and Blatter 17.

 A new 36-member FIFA Council, increased from 24, will replace the executive committee. The council will also feature a female representative from each confederation. The new reforms will also mean that the salaries of the president, all council members and the secretary- general, will be disclosed.

The package of sweeping reforms, passed with 89 per cent of the vote, renders the office of FIFA president much less powerful than it had been under Blatter who wielded immense power and set the tone, direction and agenda for the entire sport. Infantino will not have executive powers, unlike his predecessor. The council will no longer get to vote on World Cup hosts, a duty that will fall to the congress, made up of all 209 member nations. The increased number will reduce the risk of deception. It is obviously much easier to bribe 24 individuals than 209.

The council, unlike the executive committee, will no longer oversee business decisions which, along with the World Cup allocation, were rife with shady dealings. That will be handled by a new secretary-general and his administration, to be appointed and overseen by the council.

The reforms now mostly reduce the new president to a figurehead while FIFA’s powers have been decentralised and dispersed to a much larger group of people. It might not stamp out corruption entirely but it will go some way towards cleaning up FIFA’s name.

And there is much cleaning up to do in the House of Football. A $200 million FIFAgate corruption investigation by US authorities has seen the arrests and indictments of 41 individuals and corporations, led by Blatter and Platini. The two were snared over the $2 million “disloyal payment” from Blatter in 2011 – widely assumed to have been a bribe for Platini to stay out of that year’s FIFA presidential election. Both men claim it was a fee for consultancy work done for Blatter by Platini in 2002. Yet neither man has been able to convincingly explain the time gap in time and both were suspended for eight years, later reduced to six, given credit “for their services to the game down the years”. It was scant consolation. They maintain their innocence but must now take their stories to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

It wasn’t supposed to end this way. On 17 February Blatter visited FIFA’s headquarters for what turned out to be a fruitless appearance before the world federation’s appeal committee. He was seeking to overturn the ban from all football imposed on him just before Christmas by the FIFA ethics committee which he ironically created. Not only was he rebuffed, but slithered away silently through the back door, probably the last time he will ever see the insides of FIFA in which he ruled since 1998 and in which he began his office career in 1975.

It got so bad for Blatter, who was elected five times and who has kings and presidents on his mobile, that he was banned from attending the congress in Zurich on Friday which anointed Infantino as the new president.

Recently, Blatter, 79, was interviewed in various newspapers, a spent force with a whiff of comedy in his quotes: “You cannot buy a World Cup,” he says. “I have killed nobody, I have not robbed a bank, I have not taken any money from anywhere and I was even treating well all my ex-girlfriends... I am sure there is justice in this world and that I have committed nothing which goes to criminal law... even God has abandoned me.”

We beg to differ. A World Cup can be bought; just ask Blatter. Speaking to The Times, Blatter claimed that former French president Nicolas Sarkozy asked Platini not to vote for the United States to host the 2022 World Cup, which was eventually awarded to Qatar.

When the highest officials of FIFA are accused of corruption, bribery, vote rigging, racketeering, wire fraud, money laundering, and kickbacks of cash and gifts, in such an atmosphere of conspiracy and collusion, the question is what cannot be bought. Which is why, after all, Swiss authorities are investigating the bidding process surrounding the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

Blatter might have been nice to his female friends but was ultra generous to FIFA which generated $2 billion in revenue in 2014, partly helped by the success of the World Cup in Brazil. In this tax-exempt organisation which is sovereign, independent of any government and not accountable to anybody, the money was being grabbed left and right with speed that would, as Donald Trump puts it, make your head spin.  

Though many European confederations and the US breathed a sigh of relief over Infantino’s election, it was not gone unnoticed that he is a football insider himself who has close links with Platini. In fact, all of the men running for president were members of the football establishment. With its reputation at rock bottom, many would have assumed that FIFA would recognise the need for a new leader with a reputation beyond reproach. But to those who desperately wanted a fresh outsider candidate, none appeared suitable at a time when the organisation needs to be seen as truly wanting to change.

It is now in Infantino’s hands to try to persuade sponsors and the judicial authorities of both the US and Switzerland that he is on the right track to repairing FIFA’s reputation.

After his election, Infantino, 45 and shaven bald, said he wanted to work “with all of you together in order to restore and rebuild a new era of FIFA where we can put again football at the centre of the stage.

“FIFA has gone through sad times, moments of crisis, but those times are over. We need to implement the reform and implement good governance and transparency. We also need to have respect.

“We’re going to win back this respect through hard work, commitment and we’re going to make sure we can finally focus on this wonderful game.”

Inspirational words and great sound bites but the task ahead is enormous. Infantino has a little over three years, up until the next scheduled election in 2019, to repair the battered image and virtually non-existent credibility of an organisation that has been lying as easily as the rest of us breathe.

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