Big changes are afoot for the international football community in the coming days and months following the election 26 February of new FIFA President Gianni Infantino at the 2016 FIFA Extraordinary Congress in Zürich — but these changes could mean more of the same when it comes to the embattled organisation’s tendency toward corruption.
The Fédération Internationale de Football Association has been embroiled in legal troubles since 2015, when a team of U.S. federal prosecutors led by Attorney General Loretta Lynch initiated an investigation spanning bribery, money laundering, and conspiracy to commit fraud. This resulted in several North and South American corruption cases connected to the international football governing body. Infantino’s election comes after former president Joseph ‘Sepp’ Blatter’s resignation and suspension in the wake of criminal proceedings with regard to the mismanagement and misappropriation of funds. Infantino defeated the expected winner, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa of Bahrain. Salman’s chairmanship of the Asian Confederation made him the expected choice for a FIFA eager to appear dissociated from the recent drama in the Americas, but his connection to recent Bahraini human rights abuses was too glaring to be ignored. Infantino’s unexpected victory, already unusual in that it was the first time since 1974 that two rounds of voting have been needed to secure a winner, seems to indicate a break from the past as the upstart reform candidate emerged as victor by a 27-point margin. The truth is, however, considerably murkier. Infantino, formerly the general secretary of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), is hardly an outsider to the cloak-and-dagger politics of the old boy’s club that is association football. In fact, he hails from Brig, Switzerland, just one town over from Blatter’s hometown of Visp. Infantino may not be as ethically dubious as his predecessor, but only time will tell.
Notably, neither Infantino nor Blatter is keen to publicly condemn the other. Blatter has endorsed the younger man as having ‘all the qualities to continue’ Blatter’s work, and Infantino stated prior to the elections that he respects Blatter’s work ‘in terms of [global] football development.’ These two facts are, on the large scale, diametrically opposed. Despite Infantino’s stated ambitions, a new president who is unwilling to fully separate himself from FIFA’s problematic recent past appears highly unlikely to bring about truly effective change. ‘He is a young man, he is powerful, he has a lot of energy, and I am sure he will do the right job,’ were Blatter’s words about Infantino one day after the election. Tellingly, Blatter has acknowledged the parallels between himself and his successor, noting that Infantino’s election ‘is a repetition of history’.
Also portentous is Infantino’s relationship with Michel Platini, his former boss at UEFA. Infantino announced his candidacy for FIFA presidency shortly after the disgraced Platini received a temporary suspension last autumn. At the time, Infantino publicly said that his candidacy was not ‘in opposition to Michel [Platini]… if he is able to stand, I will withdraw. It’s a simple principle of loyalty.’ He has since denied claims that he is Platini’s ‘puppet,’ insisting that rumours he is running on behalf of his former boss, whose subsequent 8-year ban has since been reduced to 6 years, are ‘certainly not the case’.
Infantino was elected on the promise of a 10-point, 90-day plan intended to overhaul FIFA from the inside-out. He outlined changes to the 2026 World Cup bidding process as well as plans to appoint a non-European as the new secretary general of the organisation. In his acceptance speech, he pledged to ‘restore the image of FIFA’. Controversially, however, he is already following in Blatter’s footsteps by utilising the former president’s familiar political tactics, such as offering development grants to every one of the 209 member nations under the FIFA umbrella. These grants are to the tune of $5 million US dollars apiece, irrespective of the size or population of each nation. Five million dollars may well be negligible to powerhouses such as Germany or the US, but such pork barrel politics could have an enormous impact on smaller, less powerful states. Infantino has defended this decision by defending its legality and arguing that, given that FIFA’s revenue is 5 billion dollars, these grants are just a drop in the bucket and have no risk of a detrimental financial effect on the organisation. Whilst this is true, the grants are nonetheless contentious. To some, the situation does not smell like positive change but rather reeks of FIFA’s bribe-ridden past, in which it was commonplace for smaller nations to engage in bribery with the organisation in order to have their voices heard. This initiative for monetary redistribution has resonated with the FIFA Congress, who appreciated his message of munificence (or at minimum, egalitarianism). Infantino was met with overwhelming applause upon stating in his electoral pitch that ‘the money of FIFA is your money, it’s not the money of the FIFA president.’ An admirable statement, and one which was evidently endorsed by the Congress who then proceeded to elect him into office barely 20 minutes later, but one which undeniably leaves the door open for further Blatter-esque institutional corruption at an international level.
Even with a highly optimistic view of Infantino’s debatable dedication to reform, it is yet to be seen whether one man would be capable of enacting the change that FIFA needs. The question, fundamentally, is whether FIFA is inherently corrupt, or if it has been merely co-opted or hijacked in recent decades by corrupt leaders. The United States Department of Justice, in its investigation against FIFA, is inclined toward the latter. Attorney General Lynch stated in May 2015 that she sees the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), a sub-association which answers to FIFA, as ‘plainly an organisation in crisis,’ in need of reform. The DOJ’s indictment, which charged 14 men including 9 FIFA officials, paints the defendants as having ‘corrupted the enterprise’. This interpretation of the situation is a reversal of the department’s usual (and oft-criticised) habit of charging corporations rather than prosecuting the people who run them.
But is it possible for an organisation like FIFA to have been helmed — at the highest level and at various multinational spheres throughout two generations — by ethically bankrupt leadership without the company culture becoming indelibly corrupt, if it were not so already? Maybe a degree of corruption is inherent and even unavoidable when it comes to FIFA. Or, perhaps less likely, Infantino could prove to be a true agent of change like he has made promises to be. Ultimately, in order for FIFA to truly have a clean slate, it needs to wholeheartedly distance itself from Blatter, Platini, and the myriad under-the-table dealings of the organisation’s past.