With sweeping arm gestures, Gianni Infantino urgently addresses a room full of football administrators. It is February 2016, the Hallenstadion in Zurich. “FIFA is in crisis, its reputation has been damaged,” says the Swiss-Italian lawyer. The future of the world football association is at stake, following the resignation of chairman Sepp Blatter and the arrest of top executives on suspicion of corruption. The relatively unknown Infantino is competing for the presidency with four other candidates.
He switches effortlessly from Italian – the language of his parents – to German, he grew up in the German-speaking part of Switzerland. And then from Spanish, French, English to Arabic. Infantino wants to present himself as chairman for all continents, for all more than two hundred national associations.
One of the audience that day is Declan Hill, a Canadian professor and investigative journalist. He notices that the loudest applause is heard when Infantino promises in his speech to make more money available for the unions – 5.5 million dollars per union per four years, more than doubling. “FIFA’s money is your money,” Infantino shouts.
Although Infantino creates an image in the outside world of a chairman who will ensure a new management culture after all the scandals, he gives directors a clear signal that with a vote on him they can count on more income. The extra millions are irresistible, especially for unions from small countries.
With that campaign, also aimed at expanding the World Cup from 32 to 48 countries, he defeated the favorite, Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa from Bahrain. Since then, Infantino has been firmly in the saddle, although not without controversy. His re-election at the FIFA Congress in Rwanda, March 16, 2023, has already been determined – he is the only candidate.
Infantino emerged in the power vacuum after the many malpractices at the top management of global football. Out of nowhere, he was put forward as a candidate of the European football association UEFA, where he was secretary general. And took the place of UEFA president Michel Platini, the ideal candidate who had to withdraw when it emerged that he had received a dubious payment of 1.8 million euros from Blatter from FIFA coffers in 2011.
Six years later, on the eve of football’s most controversial World Cup, the eyes of the world are more focused than ever on Infantino (52). How does he manage one of the most influential and wealthy sports organizations, with a turnover of 4.5 billion euros in the 2018 World Cup year? Was he actually able to create a different, more open culture? And how should his soft attitude towards the fiercely criticized host country Qatar be interpreted?
Charming and decisive
People who know Infantino call him charming, ambitious, decisive. After Blatter’s period, chairman from 1998 to 2015, he changed some things for the better, says former chairman of the FIFPro players’ union Theo van Seggelen, who has known Infantino for about 25 years. “He is more transparent. And he has his merit for women’s football. But after Blatter everyone is doing better.”
In his first years he implemented various reforms in response to large-scale corruption at FIFA. The power of the daily management is limited, the allocation of World Cups becomes more democratic and no longer lies exclusively with a previously 24-member board. There will be a human rights test for candidate host countries, the World Cup bids will become public, as will the voting ratio of the 211 member associations in the allocation.
Although there have been no major corruption cases since Infantino’s election, FIFA has essentially not changed, says researcher Hill, from the University of New Haven in the US. “What we see at FIFA is a new layer of corruption. In my opinion it is more dangerous than the previous period. Before the 2015 arrests, corruption was relatively evident. It literally consisted of envelopes of cash. Now what was shady has been normalized. You get huge per diems. It’s the same, you get paid. But there is now an official name for it.”
The eight vice-presidents of the FIFA Council – the executive committee – receive annual ‘compensation’ of 290,000 euros, the 28 regular members 240,000 euros. In addition, each member receives a daily allowance of 240 euros when they are “in office” – and 145 euros when FIFA covers meals. The compensation is partly high to make members less susceptible to corruption. Infantino received around 3 million euros in salary last year.
The Qatar coup
The risk, according to Hill, is that since corrupt directors have been arrested or suspended such as Blatter and Platini, the idea is that “FIFA is a tidy organization, nothing to worry about.” Of the 24 directors who awarded the 2018 (Russia) and 2022 (Qatar) World Cups in 2010, only one is still on the Council. But there are few new faces in the layer below, the directors of the six regional confederations and the national associations, says Hill. “It is fundamentally the same organization.”
‘For the Game. For the World‘, is the FIFA slogan on the lectern when Infantino speaks at his election in 2016. Improving the world through football. His predecessor Blatter tried to bring Israel and Palestine closer together in 2015 by organizing a ‘peace match’ between the national teams.
Infantino is also explicitly trying to position FIFA, officially a non-profit organization, as an influential player on the political stage. He caused surprise at the beginning of this year by playing with the idea in a speech at the Council of Europe that a World Cup every two years – instead of every four years – could help prevent African refugees from making the dangerous crossing to Europe.
This week he made headlines by advocating a ceasefire in Ukraine during the World Cup at the G20, the summit in Bali with world leaders. That message came shortly after a letter in which he called on the associations of the 32 participating countries to focus mainly on football and not to get involved in “ideological and political fights”. The KNVB ignored that call. “Of course we will talk about football, but also about human rights,” says Secretary General Gijs de Jong.
Infantino is “stuck with the legacy” of the previous administration to hold the World Cup in Qatar, said Van Seggelen, who sat on a FIFA committee that provided independent advice on human rights issues. This does not alter the fact that Infantino, who moved to Doha with his family a year before the World Cup, can distance himself more from the host country.
In line with Qatar, he stated that three migrant workers have died during the construction of World Cup stadiums. These are only people who died in accidents at stadium construction sites, the actual number is almost certainly higher. “Purely theoretically he might be able to make the point,” says De Jong. “But if you say this, you will lose everyone in the Netherlands. Me too.”
Why does Infantino so emphatically take Qatar’s side in this? “I think he sincerely has the same feeling as the emir: that there is only criticism and no recognition for what they do well,” says De Jong. “And that Europe views the Middle East with some moral superiority.”
Infantino previously came under fire when he said FIFA helped give migrant workers “dignity and pride” through World Cup construction projects, despite accusations of human rights abuses in stadium construction.
Hill believes that Infantino should have taken more control over this World Cup after his election six years ago. He could have repeated the vote, partly due to the many arrests, Hill believes. “Or he could have said to the Qataris: these are the problems, find a way to respond to the concerns of the human rights organizations, pay the workers properly, make sure there are no complaints. He didn’t do any of that.”
Van Seggelen was disappointed in Infantino when he dissolved FIFA’s human rights committee in March last year – the Human Rights Advisory Board consisted of eight experts who provided advice on, among other things, the situation of workers in Qatar. This was set up in 2017 at the initiative of Infantino and he asked the Dutch director to take a seat personally. “At one point it got in his way, I think. In my experience it had everything to do with Qatar,” says Van Seggelen. “He didn’t want to take any risks.”
World Cup in Saudi Arabia?
A similar issue arose in 2017 surrounding FIFA’s independent governance committee. When the latter blocked the re-election of Russian Deputy Prime Minister Vitali Mutko to the FIFA board because political neutrality was at stake, the chairman of the committee, the Portuguese Miguel Maduro, was replaced. He later stated that Infantino was concerned about the consequences of Moetko’s exclusion from the World Cup in Russia in 2018.
According to Hill, this shows that Infantino is pushing his own will – independent commission or not. “From then on there were none checks and balances more on Infantino’s presidency.”
His former ally at UEFA, Platini, has been an enemy since Infantino took over his candidacy and was elected. Platini filed charges in France against Infantino for ‘active influence’ – possibly referring to the 2016 presidential election.
Infantino can remain as chairman until 2028. It is not inconceivable that under his chairmanship the 2030 World Cup will be awarded to Saudi Arabia, which would prepare a bid together with Greece and Egypt. In August, Infantino was spotted at a boxing match in Jeddah with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman – the owner of the English club Newcastle United for a year.