Commentary

Friday was a good day for soccer

By Paul Kennedy
(@pkedit)

FIFA needed a day like Friday.

The FIFA Congress overwhelmingly passed sweeping reforms and it elected 45-year-old Swiss lawyer Gianni Infantino as its new president.

Passage of the reforms doesn't mean the culture of the organization will change overnight or that they will eliminate corruption, but they are a big step in the right direction.

Infantino knows all about what is involved in the reforms as he was the only one of the five presidential candidates who served on the reform commission.  (No one would have ever imagined at the time of his appointment he'd ever run for FIFA president, let alone win.)

Infantino represents a break from the past, even if he grew up in Brig, Switzerland, five miles from Sepp Blatter's hometown of Visp.

Like Blatter, Infantino is part administrator, part entertainer. Like Blatter, Infantino was first introduced to soccer fans as the master of ceremonies at draw events. And like Blatter, Infantino is conversant in multiple languages. In his 15-minute address at Friday's FIFA Congress, he toured the world, speaking in English, Italian, German, French, Spanish and Portuguese. (The Uruguayan federation was reported to have gone with Infantino over Sheikh Salman of Bahrain because it wouldn't have to rely on Google Translate to understand him.)

Like Blatter, Infantino came up through the administrative side of game -- Blatter was general secretary of FIFA, Infantino was general secretary of UEFA before ascending to the FIFA presidency -- but he had no direct ties to Blatter.

Both Prince Ali and Sheikh Salman served with Blatter on the FIFA executive committee. Jerome Champagne worked for Blatter as a FIFA consigliere. And Tokyo Sexwale was a key figure in the 2010 South Africa World Cup, Blatter's pet project.

Infantino was certainly better than the alternative. Sheikh Salman entered the final days as the heavy favorite to win the election, but he began to hedge on the reform process, suggesting FIFA wasn't the worst of the worst when it came to flawed sports bodies, maybe FIFA didn't need its U.S. lawyers holding off U.S. and Swiss authorities and he'd reintroduce all those committees eliminated in the reform process in other forms so the patronage would still easily flow.

Critically, Sheikh Salman would have been dogged with questions about his connection to human-rights violations and past corruption in Asia in the early days of a new FIFA era when so many pressing issues await the new president.

Infantino's honeymoon won't last long, and the first steps of the implementation of the reforms will be the easy part.

Those lawyers Sheikh Salman was referring to contribute to legal expenses of an estimated $10 million a month at FIFA. Infantino's election doesn't mean the FBI and Swiss investigators are going to end their probes and go home. The criminal cases will drag on for years.

Just next week, the report about the German federation's dubious payments to FIFA in connection with the awarding of the 2006 World Cup will come out. Swiss authorities reported this week that the number of suspicious bank transactions banks have flagged in connection with the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups is up to 152. Dozens more soccer executives could be implicated.

As it is, the FBI indictments have gutted the leadership at federations across the Americas -- 18 in all. Concacaf and Conmebol are on the verge of bankruptcy. The big losers in Friday's election were interim FIFA president Issa Hayatou, the longtime boss of the Confederation of African Football, and Sheikh Salman, president of the Asian Football Confederation. Friday's election means the end of their political machines. Soccer institutions at the regional and local are crumbling.

Infantino's manifesto called for increased revenues and increased distributions -- like it has been done in UEFA -- and it hit a nerve with small federations across the world because they desperately need funding support. But Infantino won't be able to hand out the hundreds of millions of dollars -- "your money," he told FIFA's members -- if he doesn't close the current $550 million shortfall in FIFA's revenue targets for the current four-year cycle.

That means Infantino's team will have to start pounding the pavement quickly and sell all those unsold packages -- 27 of 34 for World Cup 2018 are still available -- to potential sponsors sitting on the sidelines while they watch the FIFA crisis play out.

The 2018 World Cup is just two years away, and little attention has been placed on the next tournament with FIFA in perpetual crisis. How's it going in Russia? Not well.

If FIFA did not have enough to worry about in its own house, the collapse of the energy markets has forced Russian organizers to slash spending. The latest budget cuts announced this week: $80 million.

"Brilliant" was how Noel Le Graet, president of the French federation, described how Gianni Infantino pulled off Friday's victory.

And that's how Infantino will have to be if he's going to plow through all the issues facing FIFA.
2 comments about "Friday was a good day for soccer".
  1. John Soares, February 27, 2016 at 12:20 p.m.

    He certainly has his job cut out. For the good of ALL soccer, I hope he is up to the task.

  2. David Mont, February 28, 2016 at 10:34 a.m.

    I'm very sceptical. It's the same people, the same organizations, the same system. Nothing will change.

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