It is natural to be sceptical about the election of the Uefa general secretary, Gianni Infantino, as president of Fifa – and about the election being held at all at football’s world governing body, rendered so toxic by the stench of corruption.
Infantino, the Swiss lawyer and football technocrat, only joined the contest as a late substitute after the scandals of the Sepp Blatter era wafted up and enveloped his former boss, the now banned Uefa president Michel Platini.
Yet as Infantino claimed his remarkable victory in the second round of voting, genuinely emotional at his accession to football’s top administrative job, the ingrained gloom surprisingly gave way to just a glimpse of hope. Nobody is perfect, most of football’s delegates from 207 countries collected in the Zurich Hallenstadion are far from it, and Infantino certainly kept himself close to Platini during his 15 years at European football’s governing body, the last seven as general secretary.
Multilingual, Infantino in his campaign and short final speech was depressingly savvy enough to talk to the assembled voters in the language they understand: promising them more money, for their associations, for development, even $1m each over four years for travel costs. Nor is Uefa perfect, of course – although credit where it is due, and setting Platini’s £1.35m payment from Blatter aside for a moment, it has made progress in many areas and Infantino is clearly competent.
Yet the real reason for a sense of brightness was not, with respect to Infantino who is a deft operator, because he is innately inspiring or over-blessed with charisma. It was more that he had beaten the expected victor: Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, a member of the extended ruling family in Bahrain, who trails behind him questions about alleged human rights abuses.
Fifa, governing body for the most beloved, popular and, to its adherents, beautiful game on earth, had looked set to swap an era of bribes for rule by a member of a gulf state autocracy. Whatever Infantino is – essentially a professional product of the Swiss administrative tradition for servicing sports governing bodies – he is not that.
It is true that Infantino won the election under “the old corrupt system” as Labour’s shadow sports minister, Clive Efford, directly put it, and that in the centre of his manifesto he spelt out the extra dollars promised for each association.
The many criticisms of holding this election now, with US and Swiss criminal investigations ongoing – including into that £1.35m payment by Blatter to Platini, which both men say is for work the Uefa president had finished at Fifa nine years earlier – included the weary observation that the candidates were travelling round the world doing backroom deals, just like the bad old days. Infantino said that he flew the equivalent of five times round the globe meeting the men who could vote for him, concentrating quite heavily on African football associations, who swing a Fifa vote and will be glad of the development money promised.
But a win for Salman, the Asian Football Confederation president since 2013, was set to feel worse, despite his stated commitment to reform and “transparency” – he actually, involuntarily swallowed as he said the word. Salman’s speech was calm, low key, a basic appeal to realpolitik; at the end, there was just a hint of menace, even on an occasion calling for charm. To the delegates in the hall, he finished on this note: “At the end I am one of you.”
Salman may not have meant it this way, but it sounded like the offer of a typical Fifa comfort blanket, an echo of Blatter’s much-mocked blandishments in the same hall, that they were all assailed by “devils” and he would steer them to safety. Salman did not rate the allegations against him worth even a mention, but they are seriously troubling, that so senior a figure in football remains adamantly accused by human rights groups of having been involved in his family’s brutal crackdown of pro-democracy protestors, including athletes and footballers, in 2011 during Bahrain’s incarnation of the Arab spring.
Salman has insisted that a committee he chaired to identify athletes involved in demonstrations, 150 of whom were reportedly arrested, never sat, and “categorically” denies he was involved in any such exercise. But the Jordanian prince Ali bin al-Hussein – another candidate from an unelected Middle East ruling family – and the English FA chairman Greg Dyke both pointed out that Salman does not appear to have defended the athletes or footballers from the crushing of dissent against his family’s rule.
The prospect of slipping from the graft and shabby power politics of the Blatter era – together with the phenomenal development of football for which the old master-manipulator can also claim credit – to the presidency of Sheikh Salman of Bahrain was not supported in Britain or Europe. That was why when Infantino surprisingly won, looking at times like a sheepish schoolboy, tie slightly askew, compared to Salman’s compressed power, some hope unexpectedly broke through.
If Fifa’s reputation is to be restored, as Infantino promised in his victory speech, there is a very long way to go. Scepticism remains the compulsory default position. But the fact that 115 football associations voted for Infantino, against 88 for Salman, tilted the balance away from total gloom.
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