Andrew Warshaw: Gunfight at the ‘It’ll-all-be-OK’ corral

Fortune favours the brave. Or in Gianni Infantino’s case, being in the right place at the right time.

Five months ago, the new FIFA president had no intention whatsoever of running to replace Sepp Blatter. In fact it was the farthest thing from his mind. Infantino was content to keep working as general secretary of UEFA, running the day to day activities of European football. A highly important role, of course, but not in the same league as where he is now.

Even when he entered the race, he did so as a reluctant candidate when nobody else from within UEFA’s hierarchy was prepared to take the plunge. In theory, it was only to keep the seat warm in case his temporarily suspended boss, Michel Platini, failed to clear his name.

We all, of course, know what happened next. Platini’s suspension turned into a ban and he pulled out of the race entirely. Suddenly, his number two at UEFA was catapulted into the spotlight for real, jetting around the world drumming up support.

Even then, he was still behind the favourite Shaik Salman. So when the 45-year-old multilingual Swiss lawyer and father of four daughters formally started work today as the most important man in world football, he could be forgiven for thinking he was the luckiest person on the planet. His dazed expression at his first press conference straight after beating Salman at Friday’s extraordinary election congress – extraordinary in more ways than one – said as much. Just one or two questions, Infantino entreated. Coming so far in such a short time hadn’t really sunk in and he needed some time to chill.

His first task after the weekend was to fulfill a pre-election pledge to take part in a staff football match on the pitch outside his new presidential office as well as meeting as many of FIFA’s 400 employees as possible. That in itself was hardly likely to have been a very comfortable experience given that internal cost-cutting will surely have to happen for Infantino to find the money to fund his lavish promises of huge increases distributed to FIFA’s 209 nations to spend on development.

“We have to build bridges, not build walls,” said Infantino when he visited FIFA’s newly-opened museum on Sunday morning. “We have had an election but not a war. It was a competition, but not a fight. It was a sporting contest. An election you win, you lose and then life goes on. Now we turn the page.”

His first official assignment will be to attend to the International FA Board meeting, the annual session of football’s lawmakers, in Cardiff later this week. That’s when the real business begins. Then comes the mammoth task of overhauling FIFA and getting to grips with the reform measures. But just how did Blatter’s neighbour as well as successor – their respective home villages are just six miles apart – manage to pull it off?

Piecing together the puzzle of how a three-vote first round margin turned into a comfortable second-round victory at the most tense FIFA election in history is not easy. As usual, vested interests were at play and it was hard to know who to believe. Some theories were entirely plausible, others as fanciful as putting square pins in round holes. One thing’s for certain. Something big happened between rounds one and two, so big that all but four of Prince Ali bin al-Hussein’s 27 first-round votes switched not to his Asian rival, between whom there is no love lost, but to Infantino. As usual in FIFA elections, cast-iron promises of support were not met and this time, the head of Asian football – increasingly confident in the weeks, days and hours leading up to the ballot – was the fall-guy as support fell away and federation after federation jumped on the bandwagon of the candidate who was already in the lead.

Prince Ali may have been beaten into a distant third in the first round yet now he became kingmaker, the second best outcome for the Jordanian who had already lost one election, against Blatter back in May, and wasn’t prepared to just withdraw. As delegates returned to the ballot box, Salman’s campaign team claim they lost crucial backing among Caribbean and Oceania voters. Parts of Africa who had also pledged their undying support clearly also deserted him. Even more surprisingly, so apparently did central Asian nations.

Key to Salman’s defeat was undoubtedly the United States whose federation president Sunil Gulati, having initially voted for Prince Ali, worked the conference hall between rounds persuading his supporters to switch to the European candidate. “Gianni knew how much we thought of him,” said Gulati, the American FIFA exco member who has apparently just been elected CONCACAF’s Fifa vice-president on an interim basis. “We told Gianni we would support Prince Ali but also gave him the assurance that when it mattered, if it mattered, we would be with him.”

For all that, there is little doubt that Infantino’s spending pledges seduced smaller nations. The much-maligned Shaikh Salman might well have been realistic when he addressed Congress, unscripted, with a warning about not being prepared to mortgage FIFA. But money talks. Preaching financial caution, rightly or wrongly, doesn’t. So when Infantino declared that FIFA’s money did not belong to the president but to the federations, you could almost feel them lapping it up. “At that moment in congress hall I really felt that something changed. I looked around and I believe that other delegates were also affected by it too. It was a very important moment,” said one FIFA exco member.

A less plausible explanation for Infantino’s decisive 115-88 victory, though one put forward by more than one insider, is that the Asian football chief’s most loyal supporter was instrumental in engineering his demise. Before the ballot, Sheikh Salman, a man of far greater bonhomie than he is given credit for, was convinced he would win before everything imploded.

There is no evidence to suggest that human rights allegations against the Bahraini played a part, rather as I’ve said that smaller nations were impressed by Infantino’s ambitious development spending plans and didn’t like Salman countering that such a huge increase would bankrupt FIFA.

But sources close to the election process have also suggested Salman’s biggest and most influential backer, Kuwait’s Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, abandoned his ally in his hour of need.

Shaikh Ahmad was in and out of his FIA executive seat all day as he considered the likely outcome of a Salman presidential victory. One theory is that there were growing fears that Salman could be investigated by US prosecutors if he landed the post – with a potentially severe knock-on effect for the 2022 Qatar World Cup. Confidence that Infantino was a better bet was strengthened by the fact that Michel Platini had openly voted for Qatar and that Infantino would honour the Frenchman’s legacy.

“There were genuine fears that there would be too much adverse publicity if Salman became president and that it could jeopardise the World Cup, especially if the FBI got involved,” said one insider who closely monitored the election.

“But it couldn’t be seen to be a stitch-up.”

Many will take such an analysis with a pinch of salt but it just goes to show the extent to which entrenched viewpoints take shape. A more logical explanation, perhaps, is that amongst the image conscious power brokers Infantino was simply the least worst option and that the 207 federations, or a majority of them at least, felt he was the better man to do business with, particularly given the extent to which he boosted revenues while at UEFA.

FIFA’s front-line sponsors, who had grown increasingly threatening yet are so crucial to the financial well-being of the crippled organisation, probably feel the same way. The fewer skeletons in cupboards, the better. But don’t imagine FIFA is out of the woods. It is understood that US investigators have not yet finished their business. It may be a new era at FIFA but there are likely to be a fair few reminders about the old one in the months ahead.

Andrew Warshaw is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball and was formerly Sports Editor of the European. Contact him at [email protected]com