When Sepp Blatter celebrated his 80th birthday this week in the bosom of his ultra-loyal family, perhaps with more than a touch of resentment at seeing his contribution to the game all but ignored during last month’s presidential hand-over, the man who replaced him was just completing his first week in charge.
Since taking over, Gianni Infantino has made all the right noises and pressed all the right buttons. A total governance overhaul, more representation for women, no more bad apples, a future to be proud of.
Easier said than done.
If public relations kudos were a barometer for achievement, then we may as well hand Infantino the keys to eternal success right now. Take for example last weekend’s International FA Board meeting in Cardiff, his first overseas assignment as FIFA president. A media briefing within minutes of his arrival was a savvy way to lay down a marker in terms of embracing openness and transparency. But that was nothing compared to what happened a few hours later.
Traditionally, IFAB’s members are treated to an official dinner on the eve of their deliberations. True to form, the Welsh FA, whose turn it was to host the occasion, took their guests out for the evening. When their bus returned around 11pm officials made for the hotel bar for a nightcap or two, as is again the tradition, informally mingling with assorted scribes, tongues have been loosened up somewhat.
Until this year, the one person conspicuous by his absence at the annual late-night gathering was the FIFA president himself. Few, if any, of those who regularly attend IFAB meetings can ever remember Blatter, for all his media approachability during 18 years, going as far as sitting down to share a pint of beer or a glass of wine with a load of eager newshounds at the official hotel.
So it was with some surprise when Infantino, far from making a beeline to the lift (as FIFA’s current acting general secretary Markus Kattner felt compelled to do – one wonders why?!*) chose instead to dispense with rank and hierarchy and spend at least an hour chatting freely about all manner of subjects – from realising straight after the first round of voting in Zurich that the presidency was almost certainly his to whether his four daughters showed any interest in their father’s new job.
As an endeavour to get the notoriously probing and suspicious British media on his side from the outset, it was a canny move. So was triumphantly rubber-stamping the advent of video technology the following day which could hardly have played into Infantino’s hands any better in terms of timing.
Yet the honeymoon period will not last long. The job is about to get a whole lot harder, with the eyes of the world counting on the new boss not to make the same mistakes as the old boss as he tries to restore FIFA’s damaged reputation after years of mismanagement and deceit.
First among Infantino’s tasks is to heal the divisions that clearly exist among the confederations (no matter how much he rejects such a suggestion), and show them he is the right man. Last month’s election demonstrated clearly that not everyone was singing from the same hymn sheet in terms of needs and aspirations. When African delegates met behind closed doors on the eve of the election, for instance, they were handed a three-page document by their top brass, leaked to Insideworldfootball, urging delegates to support Shaikh Salman. “Africa and Asia joining hands together is key to making the voice of developing countries heard,” said the memo.
Infantino would be wise not ignore such a statement of intent but a more pressing priority is the election of his deputy at FIFA and the potentially awkward hurdles he will have to overcome.
Tellingly the only time Infantino bristled during his otherwise relaxed media briefing in Cardiff was when he was asked about being paid less than his number two, whoever that ends up being.
“I was elected by the FIFA congress to be the leader of FIFA, not to be the ambassador of FIFA or to be the deputy of the general secretary of FIFA,” he snarled. Pretty hard-hitting stuff especially given the respective changing roles of the two positions under the new reforms designed to bring about a more democratic and inclusive approach in contrast to the autonomy wielded under the Blatter regime.
Which is exactly why Infantino will need to be careful – very careful – when considering his next move in this respect. Whether he likes it or not, the appointment of the next general secretary (or secretary general or CEO, or whatever title the post is given) will not be his decision alone. FIFA will expect due process, in other words both a long list and shortlist, ultimately assessed by the new-style Council, before any decision is agreed. Infantino might have a name in mind (CONCACAF’s US president Sunil Gulati and CAF general-secretary Hicham El Amran are two being bandied about) but a proper executive search seems likely to take place first.
There are other potential danger signals as well. If there is the remotest shred of evidence that Infantino did a deal and promised the position to anyone who swayed the ballot in his favour, ethics investigators could come down on him like a ton of bricks citing possible vote-buying.
Which brings us to his stated intention not to have a European alongside him a la Blatter and Jerome Valcke. Barring European candidates from applying for the role will not be permitted, according to those in the know. “The appointment of the next general secretary will be heavily strutinised,” said one insider with knowledge of how this kind of process works. “He cannot just choose the person he likes most. Excluding potentially valuable candidates from certain continents is simply no-go because it could harm the process. It has to be a professional process, not a political one.”
Nuff said. And lurking in the background all the while is the position of Infantino’s previous boss at UEFA, to whom he owes something of a debt with regards to current circumstances. Fanciful though it might sound, could he just be keeping the seat warm for Michel Platini to take over in three and half years time? Or, more realistically, for Platini to at least resume his role as UEFA president sooner rather than later?
For that to happen, of course, Platini would have to win his appeal at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. To cause the mother of all off-the-field upsets and have his six-year ban overturned, he may need Infantino’s behind-the-scenes help. Surely not? “No, I can’t see that happening,” said one high-ranking source familiar with the CAS case. “Infantino is not that stupid. He has enough other things on his plate to worry about.”
Andrew Warshaw is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball and was formerly Sports Editor of the European. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org