Europe’s Infantino wins FIFA presidency – Governing body approves major reforms to curb corruption

New elected FIFA president Gianni Infantino of Switzerland reacts during the extraordinary FIFA congress in Zurich, Germany on Feb 26. (AP)
New elected FIFA president Gianni Infantino of Switzerland reacts during the extraordinary FIFA congress in Zurich, Germany on Feb 26. (AP)

ZURICH, Feb 26, (AFP): Europe’s Gianni Infantino on Friday won the presidency of FIFA with a convincing win over Asian rival Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa and vowed to lead the scandal tainted body into a new era.

The 45-year-old Swiss-Italian general secretary of UEFA got 115 votes in the second round of the election held at the FIFA Congress while the Asian Football Confederation president got 88.

Infantino takes over the 209-member, multi-billion dollar body from Sepp Blatter with world football’s image at an all-time low.

Blatter has been banned from football for six years and US and Swiss authorities have launched major corruption investigations into FIFA and other football federations.

Infantino said that despite the scandals of the past year football deserves to be “highly respected.”

“And we will restore the image of FIFA and the respect of FIFA and everyone in the world will applaud us,” a visibly surprised Infantino told the Congress.

Sheikh Salman, a member of the Bahrain royal family, was one of the first to congratulate his rival.

Having got 27 votes in the first round of the election, Prince Ali bin al Hussein of Jordan got just four in the second.

Former FIFA official Jerome Champagne had seven votes in the first round but zero in the deciding ballot.

South African tycoon Tokyo Sexwale withdrew from the contest before the first round.

The Congress was given tough warnings before the vote that the result and a series of agreed reforms had to convince a world shocked by several years of corruption scandals and doubts about World Cup bidding.

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach said football and all sports had to improve governance.

“Today you have this great chance to turn the page,” he told the congress. “We need to give new answers to the new questions with regards to credibility and good governance.”

Earlier a reform package was adopted by 179 members, while 22 voted against and six abstained.

The measures are designed to limit the authority of the new president and his deputies and end the patronage and waste that prevailed during Blatter’s 18-year term.

The president’s job has been altered to function like a corporate chairman of the board, providing strategic guidance but with less management authority.

FIFA’s executive committee, which had become an epicentre of graft allegations, has been re-branded as a FIFA council. It will operate like a corporate board of directions.

Measures such as declaring the salary of the new president to improve financial transparency were also included.

After several years of suspicions, scandal erupted at FIFA when seven top officials were arrested at a FIFA congress in May last year.

Infantino will face immediate financial problems.

Acting Secretary general Markus Kattner said “general uncertainty” following the crisis had created tough economic times and FIFA was roughly $550 million (500 million euros) behind in its $5 billion budget plan for 2015-2018.

Infantino has proposed increasing the World Cup from 32 to 40 teams and to more than double the amount given back to the 209 national associations to more than $1 billion in total every four years.

Sheikh Salman, who is seen as closer to the FIFA old guard, had said the proposal could bankrupt FIFA.

Infantino countered that his proposals were far from reckless and that his record at UEFA proved his credibility as a financial manager.

“When I speak about figures … I know what I am speaking about,” he said.

Blatter, 79, was the big absentee at the congress. The Swiss sports baron suffered a spectacular fall over the last nine months.

Swiss police, acting under US warrants, arrested seven FIFA officials in Zurich two days before his re-election last May.

Blatter has since been banned from football for six years for ethics breaches and could face criminal charges.

Each of the rivals went into the vote with political problems.

Infantino was for seven years the right-hand man of Michel Platini, the UEFA president also banned for six years for ethics breaches.

Sheikh Salman had faced tough questions about the clampdown on pro-democracy protests in the Gulf state. He has called allegations made by human rights groups “nasty lies.”

Sepp Blatter, whose 18-year term as the head of football’s world body was set to end, must leave his FIFA apartment or start paying rent, sources close to FIFA told AFP Friday.

FIFA member associations were electing his replacement at a congress in Zurich, with world football aiming to turn the page on the Blatter-era that ended in unprecedented scandal.

“From the election of his successor, Sepp Blatter’s contract is terminated,” said a FIFA source who requested anonymity.

“This means that he has to leave his official apartment or pay rent,” the source added. Blatter spokesman Klaus Stoelker told AFP in an email that he was unavailable to comment on Blatter’s plans or living arrangements. Blatter was suspended by FIFA in October, after Swiss prosecutors announced he was the target of an investigation into criminal mismanagement and misuse of funds.

While suspended, Blatter, a 79-year-old Swiss national, lost access to his office phone and work emails.

But according to Swiss law, a suspension from work does not prevent an employee from being paid or from living in an apartment paid by an employer.

The FIFA presidential residence is located in a Zurich house divided into several units.

Blatter’s compensation as president was not disclosed, but has been estimated between 5 million Swiss francs (5 million, 4.5 million euros) and 10 million Swiss francs.

Following reforms adopted at FIFA’s landmark congress on Friday — where the new president will also be chosen — compensation for top executives will be publicly disclosed.

Blatter began working at FIFA in 1975 as its development director, ultimately rising to the presidency in 1998.

He was re-elected to a fifth term days after seven football executives were arrested in Zurich on May 27 by Swiss police acting on US warrants. Blatter then announced his plans to resign on June 2, as the unprecedented crisis engulfing world football rapidly widened.

In December, he was banned from football for eight years over a now infamous 2 million Swiss franc payment he authorised to his one-time heir apparent, Michel Platini, the fallen head of European football. That sentenced was reduced to six years by a FIFA appeals committee on Wednesday.

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