The Swiss is a career sports administrator who can cite genuine achievements as the general secretary at Uefa and whose campaign showed he is shrewdly aware of football’s political heart: self-interest
Clearly competent, professional, bristling more evidently with ambition than personality, Gianni Infantino is an archetype, a polished product of Switzerland’s time-served machinery for servicing international sports governing bodies. General secretary of European football’s governing body, Uefa, by Lake Geneva, Infantino was the substitute candidate to stand for the presidency of Fifa, the game’s tattered global governing body, sited in its bunker-like HQ on a hill above Zurich.
His boss, the Uefa president and former great as a footballer, Michel Platini, was the favourite to succeed Sepp Blatter after declaring his candidacy in the summer, until his gilded career crashed into a devastating ban from all football activities, reduced this week from eight years to six. Uefa had positioned itself at a dignified, clean distance from the multiple arrests and US and Swiss criminal investigations into Fifa officials, until the revelation that Platini was in 2011 paid £1.35m by Blatter, which both men claimed was for work Platini did at Fifa nine years previously.
Infantino, 45, a Swiss lawyer and career sports administrator rather than a committee-clambering football politician, seemed an unlikely replacement for the grand, world famous Platini, but he briskly stepped up to the challenge. In his campaign, flying the equivalent air miles of five times round the globe to meet Fifa’s vote-wielders in person, Infantino has shown himself to be not just a technocrat, but shrewdly aware of football’s political heart: self-interest.
His slick manifesto promises all the correct themes: transparency, good governance, support for the reforms proposed as Fifa’s life raft from its sea of disgrace. But large dollar signs are – literally – at the centre of it. Highlighting the “very significant increase” in money he is promising to the voting football associations, two pages are devoted to spelling out the cash on the table. Each of Fifa’s football associations in 209 countries is promised $5m over four years, while the confederations – the six continental blocs including Uefa – will be paid $40m. There is another $4m regionally for youth tournaments and – personally very important to the delegates gathered in Zurich to vote – $1m for travel costs.
The cash Fifa distributes from the billions made selling TV rights and sponsorship for the four-yearly World Cup has under Blatter’s 17-year presidency been a constant focus of suspicion. It was considered prey to corruption in the receiving country, and a way for the president to buy support. The reforms promise closer auditing and a separation of the president from personal involvement in where the money goes, but still, Infantino has shown he knows what moves Fifa’s constituents. He pointedly noted that he began his campaign in Cairo and ended it in Cape Town – Africa’s 54 associations are grateful recipients of Fifa investment, and usually decisive in a Fifa vote. Other attractions Infantino has offered include giving each country’s association, however tiny or huge, an equal vote; expanding the World Cup from 32 to 40 countries; and engaging more with clubs, the wealthy engines of world football who have long objected to their exclusion from Fifa.
So Infantino is a mixture peculiarly formed by Switzerland’s officer class of sports administrators: an accomplished executive who has pledged a clean-up of football’s corrupt culture, but who understands how its world works. Born in Brig, a Swiss-German speaking Alpine town close to the border with Italy, he studied law at Fribourg university, then worked as the secretary general of the International Centre for Sports Studies at the University of Neuchâtel. He joined Uefa in 2000, worked his way carefully up to become director of the legal affairs and club licensing division in 2004, before becoming general secretary, effectively the chief executive, in 2009.
He can justifiably cite genuine achievements during that time in Uefa’s HQ, besides longevity of survival, itself a feat in a highly rivalrous environment. The increased commercialisation and lucrative sales of TV rights for the European Championships – for national teams – and Champions League – for clubs – has been balanced by improved social programmes and backing for supporter ownership of clubs. “Financial fair play”, a somewhat toe-curling soubriquet, and not one associated with Fifa, was introduced in 2010, requiring top European clubs to staunch their losses from paying excessive players wages. Uefa argues it has turned the game’s finances around, cutting losses by 70% in its first three years.
Criticism of Infantino at Uefa has centred around him keeping close to his boss as Platini grew increasingly presidential while eyeing the accession to football’s top job in Zurich. Now Infantino has nipped it himself. If he really is to make good on his manifesto, feed football’s barons while cleaning up the game, he has an enormous task. – The Guardian