KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY —- If Gianni Infantino should be upset at scepticism enshrouding his first year as FIFA president then he need only delve back into the archives deep in his vast bunker across the road from Zurich zoo.
In the June 2004 edition of the world football federation’s monthly magazine he would read:
“We have recently reorganised FIFA and made a number of changes to our internal structures and personnel. These measures have had the desired effect and have helped to enhance efficiency, professionalism and unity.”
Those were the words of the then general secretary Urs Linsi. They were parroted any number of times by Sepp Blatter on his way into outer darkness. The revered Jules Rimet probably said much the same after Carl Hirschman’s poor investments almost bankrupted FIFA in the late 1920s.
Infantino and Fatma Samoura his secretary-general (the title was turned around to echo United Nations grandiosity during Jerome Valcke’s command) have elicited the same sentiments.
They should beware: The world has heard it all before, not only once, but time and time and time again.
Patience and credibility in the game’s leaders – and, by direct association FIFA itself – have been exploded by plain and repetitious untruth.
This was tough on FIFA’s workers on the ground using football in the spheres of health, education and – yes, despite all the fraudsters – development.
Samoura says that FIFA’s latest cost-cutting measures (yawn) have trimmed 81 members of staff out of 400. Doubtless some were complacent time-servers. Others, however, were good people whose experience in troubled transitional times should have been valued by the flood of newcomers (some badly off-message).
Infantino was elected as president, to serve out the remaining three years of Blatter’s four-year mandate, on February 26 last year in Zurich.
He might have brought some humility to the role after his narrow victory over Bahrain’s Asian president, Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa.
After all, Infantino was only a stop-gap candidate from UEFA in case its then president Michel Platini was barred over his ethics breach (Also because none of the UEFA exco members trusted any of their colleagues to step in).
The two main planks of Infantino’s manifesto were winners: more money for development and more World Cup places. There was a palpable ripple of approval in the congress hall when he pointed out to the delegates: “FIFA’s money is your money.”
Same old story
Trouble was, once the Swiss-Italian had been elected the man who wielded his new-found power, as a critical German newspaper commented, was “too much Italian and too little Swiss.”
It’s a common problem. Blatter once admitted to this writer that he had an awful first year after stepping up from president in 1998 because he tried to do too much too soon and failed to comprehend the sudden sycophancy surrounding him.
Thus Infantino sought from the outset to be the power-president rather than follow the team leader concept of the then audit chairman Domenico Scala (Remember him?).
In Infantino’s haste to make a difference (not in itself a bad idea) his initial months suggested less an adult strategist, rather a delighted child let loose in a sweet shop.
His star-struck ‘legends’ project was a perfect example of a distraction which has brought nothing in terms of transparency or efficiency or credibility or respect. Indeed, it raised the opposite imagery of a playboy-round-town.
The affair of the private jets – Russia and Qatar – and the ostentatious family visit to pop in on the Pope brought Infantino sailing close to the ethics wind. Poor judgment even if there is logical case for World Cup organisers – FIFA’s business partners, after all – funding his inspection visit.
On the credit side Infantino has kept, and quickly, his campaign promises to expand the World Cup and ramp up the development cash. The supervision structures have been reorganised and his regional ‘executive summits’ (in effect going over the heads of the confederations) have proved popular with FA leaders.
Critics say the summits have offered Infantino a more direct input than any previous president into regional politics though, considering the state of confeds such as CONMEBOL (South America) and CAF (Africa), that has a positive potential.
Infantino has difficult issues around the corner.
The major FIFAGate trials will start in November which will rake up all the mire of ‘FIFA Past’ which means the $100m-a-year legal services of Quinn Emanuel must remain an ongoing drain on finances to ensure FIFA maintains its crucial ‘victim status’ in the US courts.
If speculation in Zurich is accurate that Infantino wants congress in May to sack ethics judge Hans-Joachim Eckert and investigator Cornel Borbely then he and ‘his’ FIFA could soon be dead and buried.
In the wider world FIFA remains two major sponsors short in its World Cup stable and the projected regional sponsor concept has proved unattractive to a market which far prefers to throw money at the week-by-week projection of the club game (Champions League, Premier League, Bundesliga, LaLiga etc).
A projected black hole in the accounts to be reported at congress in Bahrain in May will raise questions about Infantino’s ability to match his development cash promise. This is crucial not only for FIFA but for him personally with an eye on re-election in 2019 for a full four-year term.
As Urs Linsi said, in FIFA Monthly in June 2004: “Once you have reached the top it takes even more hard work to stay there.”