Friday 23 March 2018

FIFA has had plenty of pivotal moments, the problem is they have yet to pivot

Cartoonist: Tom Halliday
Cartoonist: Tom Halliday

Dion Fanning

With high hopes and brave hearts, FIFA voted to become a new Association on Friday. At the extraordinary congress, they elected as president a Swiss lawyer from the village next to Sepp Blatter's who reluctantly became a candidate when his boss Michel Platini was banned from all football-related activities. It's been a long time coming, but a change is gonna come.

Gianni Infantino hailed the election process as a triumph for democracy when he defeated Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa who was considered the favourite before voting began on Friday.

Sheikh Salman's problems may have been that he was not a football man. When he was asked on Sky News recently if he would attend the next World Cup final - he missed the last one because it was Ramadan - he replied, "If I'm FIFA president I suppose I'll have to."

With an uplifting message like that, a statement of unfettered joy for the game, it was a surprise to many that Salman did not emerge triumphant.

Sheikh Salman would undoubtedly insist he is a football man, and given that he had employed a London law firm to act on his behalf when anyone asked questions about his past actions, perhaps we should insist too that he is a football man. A great football man.

There were many questions. Sheikh Salman denies playing any part in the identification of people, including footballers, who had been arrested in Bahrain during the uprising in 2011. A committee had been set up in Bahrain to identify those who had taken part in protests. His lawyers say that the committee only met once and conducted no business.

"Sheikh Salman plays no role in law enforcement and had absolutely no role in the identification, investigation, arrest or mistreatment of any individual," his lawyers told the New York Times. As an election slogan, it lacked the directness of, say, 'Yes we can'.

Gianni Infantino is a football man as well. He is also a song and dance man as anyone who has watched him conducting Champions League draws would understand. In this world where walls are being torn down, when the elites are under threat, the member associations might have decided that FIFA needed somebody like Infantino. He is as comfortable bantering off with Ruud Gullit and David Guetta as he is praising Tokyo Sexwale for his important speech on FIFA reform.

But what will he do for FIFA? He promised to make the Association loved again. This was not a constituency which was going to elect a revolutionary so maybe the best that could be hoped for was that they went for a man who didn't have to spend some time explaining why he was not part of any human rights abuses in his own country. Yes we can.

Infantino is president because of Platini's problems. He will be seen as an insider but to achieve change he will need the insider's knowledge and some strength.

When Blatter and Platini had their bans reduced by two years last week, the FIFA appeals committee said it was because of the "activities and services rendered to FIFA, UEFA and football". They were, in short, football men and while their bans were upheld, their status must be considered.

Platini is a case study in why people should resist being seduced by past achievements and expect them to have any bearing on football administration.

He was not just a football man like the rest of us, he was a beautiful footballer. Last week, he described the appeals committee decision as "insulting and shameful", but there weren't too many engaged by his pleas in the outside world.

Undoubtedly there will be those in the world of football administration who have sympathy for Platini's sense of grievance, but that is an enclosed order, an order where Infantino fits in comfortably.

Platini's role in backing Qatar's World Cup bid has been comprehensively and magnificently detailed by Philippe Auclair, who took on a French hero and pointed out all that he had done.

Under the influence of football men like Platini and Blatter, the World Cup has become the bloated, grasping competition that it is. The next two tournaments will become a test of dedication for those who like to believe that the World Cup can still be a romantic escape like Mexico in 1970 or Spain in 1982.

They know too that the world will stop when the competition begins. FIFA has nothing left but the global devotion to their tournament which has been exploited by those who rose up the ranks in football administration. If that goes, if the world becomes jaded with the competition because of the knowledge it has of the bidding processes, then FIFA will have no reason to exist.

So FIFA embarked on the process of change last week, but slowly and with great reluctance.

"This is a pivotal moment for FIFA, but every moment has been a pivotal moment for FIFA," Roger Pielke Jr, a political scientist who has studied the organisation, told the New York Times last week. "They've never taken advantage of it. They've never pivoted."

Infantino's election may be a pivot by the members, or they may hope that a Swiss lawyer is the man they need in charge when the Feds come calling again.

He has promised reform but he flew five times round the world during his campaign, promising more money, while threatening to expand the World Cup to 40 countries.

This is one way of growing the game, but 2018 and 2022 will reveal what damage has been done to the reputation of the World Cup.

Perhaps the public won't care and when the FBI are done (Loretta Lynch, the attorney general leading the case, has been mentioned as a possible appointment to the Supreme Court), things will settle down.

Infantino was ready to stand down if Platini had been cleared at an earlier stage, something he described as a "principle of loyalty".

Platini and Blatter are taking their cases to the Court of Arbitration, but Infantino is in position now. Blatter has hailed his election and Platini believed the presidency was once his to claim. Instead it belongs to a technocrat who worked below him. Platini once represented something more romantic, but those days are gone. How Infantino deals with those who hail him will be his most interesting test. It's been a long time coming.

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