Major challenges face new FIFA boss Infantino – Sponsors want independent reform oversight

Newly-elected FIFA President Gianni Infantino of Switzerland
Newly-elected FIFA President Gianni Infantino of Switzerland

ZURICH, Feb 27, (AFP): FIFA’s new president Gianni Infantino on Saturday faced the mountainous task of reforming and uniting world football, with a pile of crises from the scandal-ridden Sepp Blatter era needing urgent action. Infantino, an executive at European football confederation UEFA, promised an end to the dark days at FIFA following his convincing election win. But the 45-year-old Swiss-Italian national was immediately met with multiple challenges, as football powerful players including key corporate partners must still be convinced that FIFA can mend its ways.

Infantino will also have to prioritise the interests of developing football nations in Asia and Africa, two continents that publicly backed election runner-up Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa on hopes that a non-European would lead FIFA after Swiss national Blatter’s 18- year presidency. “We will work tirelessly, starting with myself,” the shaven-headed, multi-lingual new FIFA boss said. “You will be proud of FIFA. You will be proud of what FIFA will do for football.” Infantino said governance reforms passed just hours before his election win were “groundbreaking” and that implementing them would be a priority.

They include changes to FIFA’s management, limiting Infantino’s powers compared to the authority held by Blatter. There will be a 12-year term limit for top offi cials and salaries will be disclosed. The all-powerful executive committee will be renamed a FIFA council and football’s multi-billion dollar business activities will be run separately from football politics.

But there was no decision to create an outside watchdog that has been widely demanded as the only way to solve FIFA’s corruption crisis. Experts said that corporate partners — who demanded an end to the sleaze that came to characterise the Blatter era — will be watching to see if Infantino’s desire to make changes goes beyond rhetoric. Jeff Thinnes, a US consultant to global corporations on ethics and governance, told AFP that the FIFA vote is “only a start.” “Given the culture of FIFA, a very corrupt culture down through the national associations, it is going to be a long slog before what is on paper becomes what is in practice,” he said. Infantino downplayed divisions in world football, saying he had won “an election but not a war.” Sheikh Salman, a royal from Bahrain, had been the pre-poll favourite, and his defeat was a blow to the ambitions of Asia and especially the Arab world, where there had been anticipation of a powerful new voice in sport.

The executive committee of Africa’s football confederation had also endorsed the sheikh, but some African nations were believed to have voted for Infantino, especially in the second round. The new FIFA boss has insisted that he was not a European candidate, but “a football candidate” and touted his relationships across the globe. A campaign pledge to more than double the amount of FIFA funds given back to national associations to over $1.2 bil- Newly-elected FIFA President Gianni Infantino of Switzerland gives thumbs up as he arrives for a press conference after the second election round during the extraordinary FIFA congress in Zurich, Switzerland, on Feb 26.

Delegates of the soccer body FIFA met to elect a new president. (AP) lion in total every four years could help bolster support among cash-strapped federations. Blatter, suspended from football for six years over ethics violations, congratulated Infantino on his win, but left his successor with an unprecedented mess to fix. The US justice department has charged 39 people within world football and two companies over graft going back decades, with trials that could start this year. Switzerland is probing Blatter over criminal mismanagement and is investigating possible corruption during the bidding for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, won by Russia and Qatar. Openly cooperating with the criminal investigations will be a crucial sign of good will, experts said, but the controversial World Cups could pose tougher challenges.

Meanwhile, World Cup sponsors urged new FIFA president Gianni Infantino to move quickly on reforms to provide transparency, accountibility and independent oversight to wipe out its past culture of corruption. Football’s scandal-stained global governing body elected Infantino its new supremo Friday after approving changes to its governance structure, but major US-based sponsor Visa was concerned the moves were not enough without further action. “With the passing of today’s reform proposals, we urge FIFA’s new leadership to prioritize their implementation,” a statement on the Visa website said. “As we have said before, we believe it is in the best interests of FIFA, the fans, sponsors and everyone involved, that there is long-term independent oversight of the reforms.

“Our expectation is that FIFA will also take swift and immediate action in instilling a culture committed to transparency, accountability, and integrity.” Atlanta-based FIFA backers The Coca- Cola Company said in a statement that deeds, not words, regarding oversight and accountibility will be the critical factor in judging future support of Infantino’s FIFA. “As a long-time supporter of football, we, like everyone who loves the sport, want to see FIFA succeed,” the Coca- Cola statement said. “Under Infantino’s leadership, FIFA must regenerate itself and create the needed transparency and cultural change that will restore its image and effectively resume its mission of developing football around the world.” In related news, new FIFA leader Gianni Infantino was hailed Friday for being “not a politician, not a superstar” but as a reform-minded administrator who can lead the scandal-plagued football body into a brave new world.

The 45-year-old multilingual Swiss- Italian lawyer was elected as the new FIFA president, ending Sepp Blatter’s controversial, rollercoaster 18 years in charge. “He’s not a politician. He’s not a superstar. He’s just very together, very organised,” said Greg Dyke, chairman of England’s Football Association. “He has run UEFA really well and he’ll be great as the president of FIFA. “I think we can be more optimistic about the future of FIFA now than we could have been certainly a week ago, after a terrible year. It’s been a corrupted organisation for a long time and now I think this is some hope for the future.”

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