If the joke about Sepp Blatter was that he resembled a Bond supervillain more than the head of the globe’s most powerful sports cartel, then new FIFA chief Gianni “Johnny Baby” Infantino is more like a sidekick to Austin Powers. He’s one of the good guys, but questions remain over whether his role will transcend comic relief.
Infantino, who delivered his election speech before the FIFA Congress in six different languages, including Arabic, is also perfect for the new era of FIFA: one built around regaining the trust of corporate sponsors and fans as well as the kind of ceremonial leadership that more closely resembles Prince Philip than King Henry VIII.
That’s what’s needed when your federation has run up a $108 million deficit over the last two years, faces ongoing US and international probes into bribery, match-fixing, and fraud, and is seen as a Cosa Nostra in Sweat Socks. Electing someone who can stroke the sponsors is also a critical imperative when you are locked into sending your next two World Cups into Russia and Qatar, two countries that don’t exactly sing “Western Corporate Synergy.” In Qatar, particularly, there have been labor abuses that have killed hundreds of migrant workers, and, even more difficult for FIFA’s Congress, the event will be held in autumn 2022 instead of, per tradition, during the summer.
Many—myself included—believed that the new head of FIFA would be Asian Football Confederation president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, a member of Bahrain’s royal family. Salman was a Sepp Blatter acolyte who was alleged to be tied to the torture of Bahraini athletes who took part in the Arab Spring. Salman’s public denials of these horrific charges could best be described as blasé. In the lead up to the elections, Salman also signed on to an Amnesty International human-rights pledge, but excised, before putting his name down, all references to gay rights or condemning the myriad human-rights abuses in Russia and Qatar. Torture? Commitment to upholding dictatorial planning of soccer tournaments? You can see why one would think he had the inside track.
Alas, Sheikh Salman came in second, as the FIFA Congress instead made clear that they did not want a Sepp Blatter with literal, as opposed to symbolic, blood on his hands. They require a maître d’, not a dictator. The clue, as Billy Haisley over at the Deadspin soccer site Screamer, pointed out should have been when FIFA in an internal memo that read in part, “The president’s role will be strategic and ambassadorial and no longer executive.”
This fits Infantino to a tee. As Haisley wrote, “When he announced his candidacy and began the Infantino for President World Tour, Infantino came off like a guy who wanted Blatter’s old job as much for the glamour and prestige and fame that went along with such an exalted job title as out of any real sense of duty to head the reconstruction project of a new and hopefully non-criminal FIFA. That the writing was on the wall—and, helpfully, in his campaign advisor’s inbox—that the next president would not be taking over the ungoverned, bribery-laden world of Blatter’s empire and instead would serve a more ceremonial role was probably a plus in Infantino’s thinking. After all, negotiating the terms of backroom deals between various lobbying factions isn’t nearly as fun as trips to Southeast Asia to pose for pictures and cut the ribbon on the new Thailand Youth Development Center For Girls.”