The Barbados Football Association (BFA) has got its man.
Swiss Gianni Infantino today secured a surprise second-round victory over Asian football supremo Sheikh Salman to become the ninth FIFA president following Sepp Blatter’s 18-year reign and keep the post in European hands.
Last month BFA president Randy Harris was among the first to publicly throw the island’s football governing authority behind Infantino’s candidature. At a meeting with CONCACAF members in Antigua, Harris said Infantino’s message about increased funding for development programmes in smaller FIFA nations had been particularly well received even though other candidates had issued similar pledges.
“His platform is about football and improving the game and of course a small country like Barbados we need that kind of vision,” Harris said. Infantino, who was at the meeting, said Barbados’ backing was highly significant. “I think it is the first open support to any of the candidates from outside of their own continent,” he said.
Today in Zurich, Infantino, the UEFA general secretary, vowed to lead FIFA, the sport’s world governing body, out of years of corruption and scandal.
“We will restore the image of FIFA and the respect of FIFA, and everyone in the world will be proud of us,” the 45-year-old law graduate, who for the last seven years has been the leading administrator for Europe’s governing body, told an extraordinary FIFA Congress.
After a first round of voting in which he narrowly beat Asian Football Confederation President Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa of Bahrain, Infantino appeared to gather up almost all the votes that had been cast for the two trailing candidates. He won 115 of the 207 votes in the second round, giving him a simple majority.
CONCACAF vice-president Capt Horace Burrell of Jamaica said afterwards he was stunned by the eventual margin of Infantino’s victory. “To be honest I’m still trying to fathom that out. It was shocker because usually people split different ways. It was a huge swing,” he said.
Infantino owed his candidacy to the fact that Europe’s preferred candidate, his former boss, UEFA president Michel Platini, was banned from soccer last year along with Blatter for ethics violations. He will give up his position at UEFA.
Only the ninth president in FIFA’s 112-year history, he inherits a very different job from that inhabited by Blatter, who toured the world for 17 years like a head of state, dispensing development funds to his global support base.
Before the election, the Congress had overwhelmingly passed a set of reforms intended to make FIFA more transparent, professional and accountable.
That package should mean the new president faces much closer scrutiny than Blatter did, and have less influence over the day-to-day management of the organization’s business affairs.
The reforms include term limits for top officials and disclosure of earnings, and a clear separation between an elected FIFA Council responsible for broad strategy and a professional general secretariat, akin to a company’s executive board, handling the business side.
Infantino’s campaign did not at first glance mark a dramatic change from the naked financial appeals of past elections as he promised member federations more money in his quest for support, and an expansion of the World Cup finals to 40 teams from 32.
But unlike most of the other candidates, Infantino can point to the fact that he never served under Blatter in FIFA’s tainted leadership, having worked for UEFA since 2000.
Sheikh Salman, the bookmakers’ favourite, had been on FIFA’s executive since 2013, and had had to repeatedly deny allegations from rights groups that he had been involved in or known about the detention and torture of Bahraini players in 2011 at the height of a crackdown on anti-government protests.
Following Blatter’s 17-year reign, Infantino’s election maintains Europe’s stranglehold on the running of world soccer, and European officials were quick to welcome the result.
“It is the first time in a long time that I have felt happy about anything to do with FIFA,” said Executive Committee member Michel D’Hooghe of Belgium. “(Infantino) is a young, dynamic man who has done a superb job at UEFA.”
Much of Infantino’s pitch centered on his commercial acumen; during his seven years as UEFA general secretary, revenue from Europe’s club competitions has grown dramatically, but so has inequality between the rich, powerful elite clubs in Europe’s four big leagues and the rest.
Infantino will hope for at least a brief honeymoon after the firestorm that broke out last May when seven soccer executives due to attend a previous Congress were arrested on suspicion of corruption in a dawn raid on their Zurich hotel.
Blatter survived long enough to win re-election at that Congress, but stepped down four days later as the scandals took their toll.
Since then, criminal investigations in the United States and Switzerland have resulted in the indictment of dozens of soccer officials and other entities for corruption, many of them serving or former presidents of national or continental associations.
In addition, FIFA has been forced to investigate controversies surrounding the awarding of its showpiece, the World Cup finals, especially the decision to grant the 2018 tournament to Russia and the 2022 finals to Qatar, a small, scorching desert state with little soccer tradition.
Swiss authorities are reviewing more than 150 reports of suspicious financial activity linked to those awards, and said yesterday they had sent more documents including an internal FIFA report to U.S. investigators.
Many key sponsorship deals have been put on hold until FIFA can be seen to have cleaned up its act, resulting in a $108 million deficit for 2015, an official said yesterday.
Infantino welcomed that challenge.
“FIFA has gone through sad times … We are going to win back … respect and finally focus once again on this beautiful world that is football,” he said.