KUWAIT CITY, Feb 28, (Agencies): Asia Olympic Chief Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah on Saturday hailed Gianni Infantino’s victory in the FIFA presidential election as a “new era” but warned “reform won’t happen overnight”.
UEFA secretary-general Infantino won the fight to succeed the suspended Sepp Blatter in Friday’s vote, defeating three other candidates including Al-Sabah’s close ally, Asian football chief Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa.
“The FIFA Congress’ overwhelming approval of the wide-ranging reforms proposed by the FIFA Reform Committee demonstrated the shared belief that change is needed,” said Al-Sabah.
“As a member of the FIFA Reform Committee I was proud to be able to contribute to the proposals but I know that we still have a long way to go — reform cannot happen overnight.
The Kuwaiti added: “However, under the new leadership of President Infantino … I believe we have established a foundation from which we can drive forward and once again put the joy back into football.
“I greatly look forward to the positive changes in the years ahead which will put the focus back on football and herald a new era for our global sport.”
Meanwhile, former FIFA official Jerome Champagne, one of the three defeated candidates on Friday along with Sheikh Salman and Prince Ali bin Al Hussein of Jordan, said the vote represented a return “by FIFA’s Anglo-Saxon world”.
“The election of Gianni Infantino illustrates the return of FIFA’s Anglo-Saxon world and the revenge of Europe after 1974,” Champagne told AFP.
“The questions of imbalance between continents and federations remain unanswered.”
In 1974, Brazil’s Joao Havelange became the first non-European president of FIFA, unseating Englishman Stanley Rous who was so convinced of his re-election that he hardly campaigned.
Havelange had travelled widely throughout Africa, in the company of Pele, to generate support.
In 1998, Blatter defeated Sweden’s UEFA president Lennart Johansson having also secured the support of Africa.
Blatter had pledged that he would deliver a World Cup to the continent and in 2010 South Africa became the first African hosts of the showpiece event.
Blatter warned Gianni Infantino on Sunday that miracles will be expected from him as the newly-elected FIFA president but there will be plenty of backstabbers if he fails to deliver.
Blatter, currently serving a six-year suspension from football, saw his 18-year reign as FIFA chief officially end Friday when 45-year-old UEFA secretary-general Infantino was voted in as football’s most powerful man.
But in an open letter to the Swiss-Italian lawyer, Blatter warned his successor to be wary of the pitfalls that come with the job. He also said he was ready to offer his help if required.
“I congratulate you, but remember however that this position you wanted will not be easy. Miracles will be expected,” Blatter wrote in an open letter published in French newspaper, Journal du dimanche.
“I had these expectations for the last 18 years at FIFA which I served for 41 years.”
Blatter said that the package of reforms which will be implemented at the scandal-hit body will help Infantino as he embarks on his new era.
“The miracles will be helped by the vote overwhelmingly taken for the reforms which I had also started.
“If by chance, you want an opinion or advice, do not hesitate. For now, stay calm. You have two months to implement the decisions taken.”
Blatter said Infantino will be allowed a period of grace but could face stormy waters if reforms are implemented too slowly for the patience of federations and sponsors.
“Prepare yourself well but be vigilant. While everyone supports you and tells you nice words, know that once you are the president, friends become rare.”
The veteran official added that he was looking forward to other challenges in the future now that he is no longer the FIFA chief.
“At 18:01 on Friday, when you were elected, a weight lifted from my shoulders. I have now less responsibility and more time in my life. I am no longer president.”
Gianni Infantino will mark his first working day as president of soccer’s governing body on Monday by playing in a soccer match with Swiss-based FIFA employees battered for months by an unfolding corruption scandal.
The match symbolises a return to the primary focus of FIFA that for some has been lost in tales of high-living by top executives and abuses that culminated in the banning of Infantino’s veteran predecessor Sepp Blatter for six years.
When he walks into the presidential office at FIFA’s headquarters on a Zurich hilltop, the new incumbent will quickly have to deal with financial and administrative problems, bring back sponsors, motivate a demoralised work force and engage with clubs and players who are growing increasingly disillusioned.
Previously general secretary of European soccer’s governing body UEFA, Infantino must also dispel the notion he was elected to represent only the interests of his own powerful continent. Some had expected a Bahraini rival to win the post in a tilt towards Asia for the sport.
FIFA has been the subject of criminal investigations in the United States and Switzerland, although these will be lurking uncomfortably in the background rather than an immediate worry.
The same goes for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, awarded to Russia and Qatar in a highly controversial vote in 2010 and the subject of the Swiss investigation.
One of the Swiss national’s earliest tasks will be to appoint a secretary general to take charge of day-to-day operations, a post Infantino has already indicated will go to a non-European.
Another priority will be to lift the morale of the 400-odd employees at FIFA, many of whom are highly-qualified and have soldiered on for the last eight months trying to ignore the chaos at the top.
“They went through a difficult time, a difficult period and I want to tell them that I count on them, that I believe in them and we will do great things together,” Infantino told a news conference after being elected.
FIFA’s lack of credibility has made it difficult to sign new sponsorship deals and it is facing a $108 million deficit for 2015, according to Suketu Patel, who sits on the independent audit and compliance committee.
Patel said there was a shortfall of $530 million between the budgeted revenue and actual contracts signed so far for the 2015-18 cycle.
Jerome Champagne, one of Infantino’s four rivals in the election, has said that two of the eight sponsorship slots for the 2018 World Cup and 20 out of 27 slots for other competitions remained unfilled. FIFA did not comment on the figures.
Infantino will have to come good on the generous promises of development funds for FIFA’s 209 member associations made during his electoral campaign.
“The sponsors need to regain trust and confidence in FIFA and, if we can achieve this, then revenue streams will increase and FIFA will not have to worry about the future,” he said.
“I have vast experience in this area and my track record showed that UEFA didn’t go bankrupt at all, on the contrary revenue increased.”
He must also mend bridges with the clubs and players, who complained they were left out of the process which led to a sweeping reform package passed before Infantino was elected.
FIFA’s competitions depend on a delicate agreement signed with the clubs who release their players for national team games on certain dates stipulated in an international calendar.
The international players’ union FIFPro last year launched a legal complaint at the European Commission against football’s transfer system, which could have wide-ranging ramifications.
FIFPro did not even congratulate Infantino on his election, instead unleashing an angry statement saying it took a “dim view” of the whole process.
“FIFA’s system of governance has been based on favour swapping and financial inducements, not to mention obstructing external oversight from governments and the game’s key stakeholders,” said FIFPro.
“The players, much like the clubs, leagues and fans, were ignored in the latest reform.”
It added that the rights of the world’s 65,000 professional players were “often blatantly overlooked and exploited as a result of FIFA’s monopolistic structure”.
FIFA’s unity is another important matter.
Large parts of Africa and Asia voted for main rival Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa and even Infantino’s South American allies admitted there were issues over the drain of their top players to European clubs.
“We have told Infantino that clearly there are opposing interests because of the way the European market operates,” Uruguayan soccer chief Wilmer Valdez told reporters.