Given much of FIFA’s present reality must be concerned with damage control, Gianni Infantino’s election on Friday to succeed the disgraced Sepp Blatter as president should be viewed positively.
Back in Zurich nine months on from the dawn hotel raids that set in motion a period of turbulent introspection, with a bloodied and discredited FIFA forced to face the reality of its squalid past, those delegates not implicated in wrongdoing returned to crown Infantino and hand him a thankless task.
Having served as UEFA general secretary since 2009 under the now-suspended Michel Platini, Infantino cannot be viewed as a clean and definitive break with the ills afflicting global football administration. Platini remains close to Infantino, long after the relationship with Blatter that ultimately sunk his designs on FIFA’s top job turned cold.
But the election of Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, the betting favourite before Infantino stunned him by claiming a first-round advantage that was driven home in the second ballot, would have invited pressure and scorn that FIFA at its current low ebb would have been ill-prepared to deal with.
Bahrain’s Asian Football Confederation president remains dogged by accusations of human rights abuses from his time in charge of his nation’s football association. They are allegations the 50-year-old has continuously and stringently denied, but remain claims that did not need adding to FIFA’s current headlines cocktail of wire fraud, racketeering, money laundering and disloyal payments.
There is more to recommend about Infantino other than him not being allegedly in breach of international law. His diligent work behind the scenes at UEFA won admiration from the great and good of European football.
Member federations chiefs lauding Infantino should be taken with a heavy grain of salt – in all likelihood, these are men who backed the winner and are patting themselves on the back for doing so.
However, when the likes of Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho support Infantino before vocal proponent of FIFA reform Luis Figo celebrates his win, it is worthy of attention. These are respected football figures without vested interest.
During his time with Europe’s governing body, Infantino increased television revenues for both clubs and national teams, while backing fan ownership and improving social initiatives.
He helped to implement the Financial Fair Play rules encouraging clubs to operate sustainably within their means and the expansion of the European Championship from 16 to 24 finalists.
These were flagship Platini policies and Infantino’s refusal to publicly lambast his former boss for his own ends speaks well of his integrity. Nevertheless, the 45-year-old Swiss walks a fine line.
“I thank Michel Platini for all he brought to me, for all he gave to me, for the nine years we have worked together,” he said at a post-election media conference. “So, I have a big, big thought for Michel Platini tonight, believe me.”
Defending Platini’s right to due process is one thing; gushing towards the discredited ex-France captain in this manner will invite labels of Infantino being part of the problem. He cannot afford for them to stick if he is to be part of the solution.
He should also choose his drinking buddies more wisely.
“I’m glad Gianni Infantino is president, a man from the upper Valais such as myself,” said Blatter on ZDF, unable to stray too far from the spotlight he craves. “I had gluhwein [mulled wine] with him around Christmas and gave him tips.”
One shudders when contemplating what these tips might have amounted to. How to sour relations with your home continent? How to provoke public outrage when haphazardly dealing with issues of racism, homophobic and sexism? How to make £1.3m transactions based on “gentleman’s agreements”? How to make administrators, rather than the star footballers, the story?
Whatever the gist, Infantino must ensure his new schedule does not include seasonal tipples with Blatter.
He should be proud of a career where he performed with decency alongside those now banished in shame. But if he is to lead FIFA towards a future away from its bleak past, Infantino must sever all ties to it – however trivial they might seem.
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