David Owen: Infantino spending plans may be less generous and less ‘dangerous’ than they appear

Jérôme Champagne has come out swinging in these final days of the FIFA Presidency campaign, claiming that spending pledges tabled by UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino are “very dangerous”.

If one takes at face value what the Swiss candidate says on page 22 of his glossy 50-page manifesto, I might be tempted to agree with his French rival.

Here, one reads that: “As a benchmark, and after all necessary adjustments, I believe that FIFA should easily be able to ear-mark at least 50% of its income for direct distribution to its Member Associations for football development projects.”

What you need to understand is that under FIFA’s current budget for the 2015-18 quadrennium, just $900 million, or 18% of projected income, is thus designated.

So, what we are left with is Infantino apparently claiming that he could “easily” divert a sum equivalent to 32% of the world body’s expected four-year revenues, around $1.6 billion for an overall total of $2.5 billion, to development projects at a time when it faces the worst crisis of its history.

Since this manifesto came rolling off the presses, however, Infantino was able, this month, to breeze into Wembley, with a bunch of famous footballer chums, and present himself for questioning to the notoriously acerbic British media.

Here, to his credit, he went to great pains to clarify what he was, and was not, promising.

Page 22 of his manifesto, it turns out, is more of an aspirational goal; by contrast, the figures on page 23 of the document – $5 million over four years per member association and $40 million per Confederation for investment in football development projects – are firm pledges.

He said: “What I am proposing to be very clear is the $1.3 billion, more or less, which is the $5 million per association and so on…

“The objective will be to go to 50% because that must be the objective of FIFA.

“But what I say as well in my manifesto is that in order to be able to go to 50%, I first need to sit inside there and see what kind of engagements have already been taken, how quickly can we get to the 50%?

“So the amounts that I am proposing, which amount to $1.3 billion out of $5.5 billion or whatever – which I think is not only feasible but it’s easy to get – these amounts will be delivered immediately and in future hopefully we can increase them quite significantly because 50% of $5 billion is $2.5 billion….

“This has to be the objective, or what is FIFA doing otherwise?”

To me, a 42.8% increase – the difference between the $900 million budgeted and the $1.285 billion that his $5 million + $40 million formula actually adds up to – is neither dangerous nor unrealistic.

But it still might have to be attained by eating into the reserves made necessary by FIFA’s inherently risky financial model, whereby one quadrennial cash cow – the FIFA World Cup – funds pretty much everything else, and/or by cutting into other expenditure items.

Infantino’s Wembley answer on this point – what would he cut? – was rather interesting. He said: “I’m a man of numbers; I know in and out how much it costs to organise a World Cup, how much it costs to organise a Euro. I know how much it costs to organise a Euro, so by definition I will know how much it costs to organise a World Cup.

“I know how much it costs to organise a Congress in UEFA. It’s one million; in FIFA it’s thirty million…

“A World Cup costs around three times more than the Euro. Now a World Cup has only four venues more than a Euro. So there are cuts that can be made.

“There is the administration of FIFA. We have more or less similar numbers of staff, UEFA is probably even a little bit bigger, and the costs of the FIFA administration are like two times the costs of UEFA.”

The implication is that both FIFA HQ and Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s latest sporting vanity project, the 2018 World Cup, might suffer cuts to help fund extra development spending.

I think many would approve wholeheartedly of such a rejigging of priorities.

It is probably no bad thing at this point to remind ourselves of what another leading candidate, Shaikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa, had to say on development spending in his platform released in January.

“FIFA development spending overall must be significantly increased,” he wrote.

“FIFA needs to increase the percentage of its development spending from under 20 per cent of gross revenues now to a higher target, using best practice and benchmarks from comparable organisations (inside or outside football).”

Much vaguer, then, but expressing similar sentiments.

Given Shaikh Salman’s call for “development based on need”, indeed, it could be surmised that less well-off national associations could find more development cash flowing their way under a Salman-led FIFA than one presided over by Infantino.

More likely, I suspect is that either man would find similar ways of engineering the approximate scale of increase that Infantino envisages.

My message to national associations still mulling who to vote for would therefore be: your development money is likely to be raised by a broadly similar amount under either leading candidate; so it is probably sensible to base your vote on other factors.

David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 World Cup and London 2012. Owen’s Twitter feed can be accessed at www.twitter.com/dodo938.