In FIFA Pitch, Gianni Infantino Pushes Expansion and Continuity


Gianni Infantino was at Wembley Stadium in London on Feb. 1 for the unveiling of his manifesto in his bid for the FIFA presidency.

Matt Dunham/Associated Press

LONDON — The last time Gianni Infantino ran for elected office, it was an intense battle, a campaign decided on promises and vision.

Infantino remembers it well. He was 18. The race was for president of the tiny soccer club near Brig, Switzerland, his hometown. There were two opponents, both older men whom Infantino described as “established.” Infantino was the surprise entry, a wild card with hopes of having his amateur club promoted up the national pyramid.

Many of the voters doubted Infantino’s mettle. But he ultimately swayed the majority with a bit of savvy campaign bluster. “I told them that if I won, my mother would wash all the kits each week,” Infantino recalled recently. He laughed. “And I won. So she did.”

Now, nearly three decades later, Infantino is mired in an election race of significantly greater intensity, and importance. On Friday, he will make a presentation to the 209 member nations of FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, imploring them to vote for him to become the next FIFA president — a position many people believe is the most powerful in global sports.

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Who’s Running for FIFA President?

Five candidates are on the ballot this week for the election to replace Sepp Blatter as FIFA president. Who will win the vote at the special FIFA Congress on Friday in Zurich?

All indications are that Infantino is one of the two favored candidates. His primary competitor is Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, the president of the Asian Football Confederation, and the two men come to the race with vastly different backgrounds and similarly divergent forecasts of what the scandal-strafed FIFA needs to do.

Infantino’s track record is as an administrator. His current job is as general secretary of UEFA, which oversees European soccer, and most fans know him best for his regular, if somewhat monotonous, on-camera appearances during the draw ceremonies for UEFA’s various continental tournaments.

But Infantino has said, repeatedly, that his previous work as a nuts-and-bolts executive and his delayed entrance into the race — he announced his candidacy only after it became clear that Michel Platini, the president of UEFA, would not be able to run — should not be seen as an indication that he is not fit to be a leader. To the contrary, he has painted himself as the closest thing to a groundbreaking candidate there is in this race, a person who loves world soccer and knows how it operates but has never been directly involved in the murky landscape of patronage that has led FIFA into its continuing crisis.

To that end, although he rarely mentions Sheikh Salman directly, Infantino likes to draw out the obvious distinctions between him and his primary opponent, who is a member of FIFA’s historically toxic executive committee and has been linked to allegations of human rights violations in Bahrain, his home country.

At a campaign event here this month, Infantino addressed a crowd of reporters and said that he would begin by unveiling his plans for what he would do during his first 90 days in office. “Why 90 days?” he said. “A politician usually takes 100 days, but I’m not a politician.”

He hit that line with inflection, and while it may be true, it does not mean Infantino is not a skilled operator. Those who have worked with him, both in his current job as UEFA’s general secretary or during his previous work on the organization’s legal side (he is a certified attorney), say that in meetings he can be quick to switch between a light, joking demeanor and a grim, serious stare that indicates displeasure or disappointment.

He is, according to those close to him, fixated on outcomes, frequently boiling something down to its essence: Did the job get done?

Among other ventures Infantino was intimately involved with at UEFA was the recent expansion of the European Championships to 24 teams from 16 — an initiative that is, not surprisingly, popular with European federations and a concept that Infantino has made part of his FIFA campaign, vowing to seriously explore increasing the World Cup field to 40 teams.

“In my position as general secretary of UEFA, I am dealing every day with associations, with leagues, with clubs, with heads of state,” he said in a recent interview. “I think FIFA needs somebody who has this track record. Not only of dealing with people, but of coming with results. This is what FIFA needs. They don’t need a dictator or someone who inaugurates football pitches. They need someone who will work.”

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As with all the candidates, criticisms of Infantino are wide-ranging. Some believe he is little more than a puppet of Platini’s, not a visionary leader; others believe he will be too focused on Europe if he becomes president; more than a few are leery of seeing FIFA replace one Swiss polyglot (the suspended Sepp Blatter) with another.

More pointedly, Sheikh Salman has disparaged Infantino’s plan to increase the World Cup field as pandering for votes, calling Infantino’s suggestion “unprofessional.” Another candidate, the soccer executive Jérôme Champagne, has highlighted UEFA’s previous handling of corruption cases, most notably a match-fixing scandal in Turkey and a bribery case in Greece, as a way to paint Infantino’s current statements about reform as out of sync with his organization’s history.

Infantino has spent the past few months crisscrossing the globe in an effort to combat those labels and meet as many officials from as many national federations as possible. Whether speaking English, German, French, Italian or Spanish — he is fluent in each — Infantino has attempted to put out the message that he is not a “European candidate” but rather someone more universal.

“I suppose that you could say that Michel Platini, who became president of UEFA and was quite popular, was never really involved in the administrative side of football before he became president,” said Jim Boyce, a longtime soccer executive who served on FIFA’s executive committee from 2011 to 2015. “I think a person should be judged on his capabilities. The president of FIFA needs to have good people around him. He needs to have people around him that he can trust. But also the president needs to be able to delegate certain duties to administrators, and Gianni knows that — maybe better than anyone — because he was one of those administrators.”

Infantino concedes that he had no previous inclination to run for FIFA’s presidency, and that he considered the possibility only after Platini’s suspension last fall. Infantino said another top FIFA and UEFA official, Ángel María Villar Llona of Spain, was the first to suggest to him that he should become a candidate, and recalled his wife’s reaction to the initial suggestion: “She looked at me like I was crazy.”

But, ultimately, he said, “you can sit in your nice office in UEFA and watch how everything collapses or you can stand up, put your face out there, take the responsibility and try to do something to save football.”

He added, “For me, the option of not doing anything is never option.”

That is why he entered. That is why, despite the fact that he is a nervous flier and struggles to sleep on planes, he has flown across the globe to explain his plans to all who will listen. That is why he is running in an election for the first time since his promise of a fast, reliable, family-operated laundry service helped him win a prior one at his local soccer club.

That race, he said, was a long time ago. But even then, Infantino said, the results made the effort worthwhile.

“A few years later, we got promoted, too,” he said. “I hope this election will go just as well.”

Correction: February 24, 2016

An earlier version of this article misstated the number of teams involved in the recent expansion of the European Championships. The tournament expanded to 24 teams from 16, not to 32 from 24.

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