New FIFA boss Infantino faces major challenges

AFP , Saturday 27 Feb 2016

Swiss Gianni Infantino, new FIFA President, smiles during the press conference after being elected, at the Extraordinary FIFA Congress 2016 held at the Hallenstadion in Zurich, Switzerland, Friday, Feb. 26, 2016 (AP)

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."

- Questions on reform -

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 officials 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.

Top World Cup sponsors like credit-card giant Visa said after the vote that "independent oversight of the reforms" was still the best strategy to ensure real change.

Infantino has promised to bring in "independent and respected voices" to FIFA but has not given details.

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."

- Unity push -

"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 new FIFA needs to become more inclusive and reflect the diversity of world football," the sheikh said after the vote, pledging to work with Infantino.

India, a supporter of Sheikh Salman, said it hoped to receive "due importance" under FIFA's new boss.

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.

- Blatter baggage -

A campaign pledge to more than double the amount of FIFA funds given back to national associations to over $1.2 billion 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.

"I assume Russia will go ahead as planned," said Patrick Nally, a prominent sports marketing executive with long-standing FIFA expertise.

"In regards to Qatar he needs a quick and independent review and if, as I think it will, be too complicated (costly) for FIFA to withdraw," then Infantino needs "to get the membership to forgive and forget, make it a success and concentrate on better things for the future."

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