The Cable

Can FIFA’s New President Root Out Its Institutional Rot?

Gianni Infantino won FIFA's presidency by promising reforms. It remains to be seen if he can deliver.

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When U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, in concert with Swiss authorities, launched an investigation into corruption within FIFA last year, she seemingly had two goals in mind: dislodge Sepp Blatter as the head of football’s global governing body, and root out the decades of bribery and graft that plague the organization. She’s done the first. On Friday, as Gianni Infantino assumed FIFA’s presidency, it remains unclear whether she’s paved the way for accomplishing the second.

It took two rounds of secret voting for Infantino, secretary general of the European soccer federation UEFA, to defeat Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa of Bahrain, president of the Asian Football Confederation, by 115 votes to 88. Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan and former FIFA executive Jerome Champagne of France also ran but attracted little support. South African Tokyo Sexwale dropped out before the tally began. The result came as a surprise; Khalifa was the favorite to win.

And while Blatter may be out of the picture — he was suspended by FIFA last year, ending his 17-year reign over world football — it’s not yet clear whether Infantino can deliver changes to the way soccer, including the awarding of the World Cup, is governed.

In the run up to the election, the Swiss-Italian lawyer promised to clean up FIFA from “day one.”

“I cannot express my feelings in this moment,” Infantino said in brief remarks after the result was announced in Zurich Friday evening. “I want to work with all of you to restore and rebuild a new era where we can put football in the centre of the stage.”

Infantino is largely viewed by the football community as the reform candidate. Until October of last year, he didn’t publicly harbor presidential ambitions. He’s also delivered an 11 point, 90-day plan that includes reforming the transfer system that allows players to move from team to team, appointing a new FIFA secretary general, and relaunching the aborted process to plan for the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

“We need to implement the reforms, we need to have good governance and transparency. But we also need to have respect,” he added. “We will regain this respect by hard work and dedication, so we can again concentrate on the wonderful game of football.”

Jeff Thinnes, an anti-corruption and ethics consultant and CEO of JTI, Inc., called the election and the promised reforms a “good start.” However, he warned that changing the way a global organization works doesn’t happen quickly.

“You have 209 national associations around the world who have to go through a serious cleanup. How that’s going to be done wasn’t discussed at all,” Thinnes told Foreign Policy Friday. “It’s not an exit from the problems. It’s an entry into areas of toxic waste that will take years to clean up.”

Changing FIFA, a non-profit that generated $2 billion in revenue in its last World Cup year in 2014, is a tall task. There have been accusations of bribes in connection with the awarding of the World Cup, television rights, and regional tournaments for years. These allegations, especially in connection with the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, gained traction with the ongoing U.S./Swiss investigation. Some 40 individuals and entities have been indicted by the United States in connection with the corruption investigation.

Khalifa had been seen by many as unlikely to take the steps needed to change the status quo. Prior to the election, human rights groups wanted FIFA to investigate whether Khalifa, a member of the ruling family of Bahrain, had a hand in torturing Bahraini athletes who peacefully protested his family’s rule during the Arab Spring in 2011.

These kinds of abuse allegations have been connected to FIFA in the past. Nepal’s government has called on FIFA to do more to protect 400,000 Nepalese workers building sites for the 2022 World Cup. Amnesty International has also accused Qatar of failing to deliver on promises to improve conditions for migrant workers.

FIFA’s Congress did agree to some changes on how the organization is run. Its president will be limited to three, four-year terms in office. Blatter, by contrast, was well into his fourth term. Salaries for officials will now be disclosed, and human rights protections have been enshrined in FIFA statutes. And each football confederation must have one woman representative.

“The hard work hasn’t even begun yet. The hard work starts tomorrow,” Thinnes said.  

Photo Credit: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

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