James Dostoyevsky: Gianni, quo *tf vadis?

Sometimes, it looks like he can’t do anything right, doesn’t it? He blabbers about football solving the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, he lectures about his being gay today, his being a migrant worker yesterday, and quite generally to be utterly misunderstood – every day.

Just “re-elected” (not really though, was he: there was just nobody else interested to stand against him, he was re-appointed by acclamation, Blatter-style), he did his best impersonation of a deeply concerned, completely disrespected, deviously smeared and completely and unfairly devastated victim of the bad media in general, and sports writers in particular. Anglo-Saxon ones, predominantly, with a handful of German geniuses thrown into the mix.

Gianni is suffering.

And, quite frankly, that is just about the only thing this writer actually does believe to be true about him: Gianni is suffering.

Thrust on to the last step of the Peter Principle’s ladder, after the US had arrested over a dozen football grandees in Zurich (90% of whom had travelled to Zurich from the US – but to arrest them individually in Miami or NYC would have created far less media hype), he found himself wholly misplaced, scared in an anticipatory way, and completely flabbergasted – or better: overwhelmed.

New leaders often make their worst mistakes during the first weeks of their reign. That would apply to leaders. But if a person is about as gifted a leader as a cinema attendant who, by some misfortune, finds himself appointed CEO of Fox News, things tend to become a bit dire fast. Sadly, not only for the attendant but all the people they are supposed to “lead”.

So, Gianni had the kind of lift-off that he was destined to deliver: he replaced the Ethics Committee Members without telling them personally, he hired a CEO without seeking the FIFA Council’s advice, he employed a host of second-tier sycophantic wannabes and failed managers from his old UEFA, and kicked out scores of FIFA staffers who actually knew what they were doing. In brief: he created a Covid-like toxicity at FIFA within no time, for no reason (other than his own ineptitude and deep-rooted inferiority complex), and to no good.

Gianni’s appointment, or election if you will, to the post at FIFA, has the kind of sordid genesis that very bad fairytales are made of: the idea to get him there was born at a meeting in Northern Italy, thrown into the room like a stench bomb by a since thoroughly discredited Olympic and Football leader from Kuwait, and gobbled up by a bunch of attendees who felt their hour had finally come: he’d be out of UEFA (halle, halle – forget the lujah), and malleable clay in the hands of those who came up with the idea. The fact that goodly Platini, the heir-elect, had been ousted before even getting a chance to run (no hand in that Gianni?), triggered the Gianni-elevation. As for Platini’s fate, that’s an altogether different tale never as yet told, and probably one that never will be. Or maybe it will).

Africa’s football presidents saw Dollar signs frantically jumping before their eyes – and voted for the man who would make them rich. Some naughty people, who know the ‘what is what’, instantly started to claim that those local and regional players didn’t have to wait until after the election for the green manna to land in their laps. But that is of course total fabrication, untrue and bad-minded stuff. Or is it? Much the same happened in the CFU, where little grandees, and spoiled by their Trini master for decades, succumbed to the promises and jumped the Asian ship they had agreed to join.

Once on the throne that he was so utterly ill-prepared to sit on, a core evil started to haunt the Swiss-qualified lawyer who – years before – had applied for a job at FIFA’s legal department but was not hired for lack of competence – so the story goes. Another fairy-tale? Who knows. Blatter does, but he won’t say. At least not publicly.

Now seated at the Big Boys Table, he was determined to reshape a flawed and discredited organisation, pretty much along the same lines as that flawed and discredited organisation had operated under its Über-Vater Blatter. Nothing changes, ever, does it? When a man on a bicycle finds himself in a Five-Star Hotel Suite over night, not by merit but by shrewd finagling (to put it mildly), he’ll quickly toss away the bicycle and switch to the private jet.

The various ill-conceived initiatives subsequently developed by a bunch of new FIFA clowns didn’t go down too well. Gianni had fired the decent folk (of which there were many even in Blatter’s FIFA) and hired some wannabes with an agenda all of their own. The results were appropriately inappropriate as a consequence: a World Cup every two years (the rehash of an old Blatter idea), the not-so-tacit support of a European Super League or the complete reorganising of FIFA where the commercial part would become a for-profit commercial entity (under Gianni’s leadership, no less), financed by his Saudi friends (via Japan’s Softbank, or SofutoBanku Gurūpu Kabushiki gaisha) turned out to be a quick-flop because not everybody is as stupid as they look. Not even football administrators – and certainly not football fans, Leagues, Clubs and Fan-pressure groups.

His biggest achievement thus far is handing the World Cup to the 2022 loser USA who had earned it of course by locking up scores of football administrators from around the globe under a repulsive extrajudicial set of laws that allows them to charge, convict and dispose of no matter who, if they ever had the stupidity to touch one US Dollar – no matter where in the world. Most of them had never worked, or done business in the US, but Dollars they did use for their bribes and corruption – in South America, the Caribbean and Africa.

So, Gianni quickly showed his gratitude, met with Trump (who promptly fell in love with him, just as he did with the little fat guy in North Korea, the Big Man in China, and his best buddy in Moscow). Trump soon claimed that he brought the World Cup to the USA (he didn’t) and made sure (didn’t) that relations with FIFA were on the mend (weren’t). What did make a sea-change is Gianni’s laudable efforts to do anything the US ever wanted, and to wet-dream about the new amounts of crazy-cash that would flow into his coffers with a US/Mexico/Canada World Cup.

This little piece doesn’t do justice to Gianni.

Because it is mainly about his history. But then, his history doesn’t do much good to Gianni, does it? A poor child of migrant Italian parents, a second-generation migrant of sorts himself, suffered through the bullying at school because of his freckles. I only wish he hadn’t compared that to the plight of Nepalese, Bangladeshi and other exploited workers who were abused under the unforgiving desert sun, building stadia and many dying. But he did.

He was misunderstood, he said.

That seems to be a common thread with everything Gianni says: being misunderstood. Personally, I would have kicked out the idiot speech-writer who produced such utter crap that Gianni then read out to the mesmerized world. But no. He trusted the same advisers who have about as much ‘Fingerspitzengefühl’ – or sensitivity and tact if you wish – as he has charisma: zero.

Gianni’s fundamental problem as a leader that he would love to be, is multi-faceted: he believes the sycophantic bullshit he is fed by his inner circle, he has no understanding for the criticism he faces, and has no ability for critical self-analysis. He’s the victim, the little migrant child who made it big. He’s the self-styled Phoenix that rose from FIFA’s smelly ashes – but he doesn’t apparently see what Icarus was forced to see: the nearer to the sun you get, the more the wings will melt.

Gianni is not a bad man. He’s just the wrong man in the wrong job at the wrong time. But it needn’t be that way.

Good leaders tend to appoint people close to them, who have the potential to be better than them over time. Good leaders are not scared. They cherish a challenge and respond with kindness, humility or indeed force when necessary. Good leaders have an aura that exudes quality and strength. Good leaders promote critical thinkers because the sycophants never deliver. Good leaders have a mirror or two: jesters, who dress them down without fear, because they believe in the leader. Good leaders are shrewd alright but not unfair or dishonest about motive. Good leaders deliver.

Good leaders have charisma. You cannot learn charisma. Good leaders have a solid aura. You cannot grow an aura. But you can work on who you are and what you reflect. And you can learn what you want to be perceived to be.

Good leaders hire the best people. Gianni doesn’t. and if he wants to change his fortune, he must.

To run FIFA is a reasonably simple assignment. You need not move mountains to succeed. All you need to do is analyse, understand, and act. What you do need, is to rid yourself of the arse-kissers, the fake friends who throw salt from their elbow, the ‘best friends’ who turn out to be poisonous snakes when it matters. What Gianni needs is an external adviser who comes in, audits the shit-show, assesses the people that surround him (and write shit speeches), analyses their human coefficient for humility, quality, and strength – and helps him kick out the idiots who run the asylum.

Gianni may not be the best orator (he isn’t) and he mustn’t try to impress in badly flawed English (or what he thinks passes for English),  nor must he try that arm and hands thing he was told to use when he makes a (flawed) point. Gianni is not a gifted presenter, nor must he be the cringeworthy flag-shagger at each and every occasion that offers itself when he meets with an African, Asian, or Latin American head of state or head of government. People who care about Gianni must help him overcome his limitations (of which there are many), but do so with a level of class, constructive criticism that is not hurtful and expertise in areas where he hasn’t any (and those are many).

It is this writer’s view that Gianni deserves better, but he won’t be doing any better as long as he runs from critics, runs from adverse circumstance, runs from responsibility, and runs from the lies that are being told in his name.

He deserves better but he doesn’t, won’t, do better as long as his own Augean Stables are controlled by sycophants of his own making.

Gianni Infantino should remember the little boy who was bullied for his freckles and remember the strength of character it took him to survive in a hostile, anti-immigrant Switzerland. He should practice the humility that his religious background preaches. He should choose better. He should finally rid himself of the morons that surround him and select folks of quality, who have class, who have style, who have knowledge.

Gianni can succeed if he sheds the snakeskin he inhabited for too long and puts on a simple suit worthy of a man of relevance.

But can he?

For the sake of football, I wish he could.

James Dostoyevsky was a Washington-based author until the end of 2018, where he reported on sports politics and socio-cultural topics. He returned to Europe in 2019 and continues to follow football politics – presently with an emphasis on the Middle East, Europe and Africa.