Gianni Infantino’s actions at Fifa remain more dangerous than his words | Sean Ingle

Fifa president has been reelected unopposed and is pushing through unpopular reforms like the enlarged World Cup

The crassest leader in global sport was at it again last week, making a comparison between Rwanda’s recovery from genocide to his own struggles to be elected Fifa president for the first time. It was another one of those Gianni Infantino car-crash moments you could see looming from a mile off, from the moment he explained how his 2016 campaign had appeared to hit the skids, before a visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial encouraged him to keep fighting. Yet on he went, pressing down harder on the accelerator, oblivious as always.

“And I said, ‘Who am I to give up?’” Infantino told the Fifa delegates who had just re-elected him unopposed for another four-year term. “What this country has suffered and how this country came back up is inspiring for the entire world, dear president … I continued to campaign, and I was elected the Fifa president a few months later.”

How we all grimaced. Yet it would be a mistake to see Infantino as a mere punchline: someone to roll our eyes at when he pronounces: “I feel Qatari, I feel gay, I feel disabled”, or claims that a World Cup every two years could stop African migrants from finding “death in the sea”. The stark reality is his actions are far more dangerous than his words or lack of filter.

What was it the American civil activist Maya Angelou once said? When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. During all those years where Infantino cosied up to Vladimir Putin and Mohammed bin Salman he was showing us.

Perhaps he learned something from Russia’s ruler. A day before the World Cup final in Qatar, Infantino revealed that it had been “clarified” to the Fifa Council that his first term, from 2016 to 2019, did not count towards the 12-year term limit dictated by Fifa’s reforms and so he could continue until 2031.

Infantino’s friendship with Putin may have cooled but others have stepped in. The “dear president” Infantino was referring to in Rwanda? That would be Paul Kagame, who won 98.79% of the vote in 2017. The only surprise was that it wasn’t even higher, given that Human Rights Watch noted it came “in a context in which Rwandans who have dared raise their voices or challenge the status quo have been arrested, forcibly disappeared, or killed, independent media have been muzzled, and intimidation has silenced groups working on civil rights or free speech”.

Speak to senior insiders across global sport, and their criticisms of Infantino are remarkably similar: he doesn’t listen or seek consensus, and he makes everything about him, his power and legacy. As Miguel Maduro, Fifa’s former governance head, put it: “The culture has not changed. Look at the institution from the outside and what do you see? Voting is almost always unanimous. Incumbents are always re-elected and almost never challenged. Presidents that extend existing term limits.”

The consequences are painfully clear. There was hardly a groundswell of calls for a bloated 48-team World Cup, stuffed with 16 extra teams and 40 more matches. In truth it is the footballing equivalent of a poultry farmer plumping raw chicken meat with saltwater and additives. Sure, it looks bigger. But try tasting it. Yet the move rewarded Infantino’s base in Africa and Asia, who will have far more countries in the tournament next time around.

Infantino has also approved an enlarged Club World Cup which will be played every four years from June 2025, refusing to consult with the top leagues, including the Premier League, who are all against it. A more enlightened president would surely be trying to find ways to reduce the load on top players, not flog them.

The one small mercy is that things could have been worse. Infantino’s widely derided biennial World Cup idea appears to have receded. Many also suspect that Infantino was not only aware of the European Super League but was privately behind it, until it began to unravel.

More lunacy could still await us. Infantino is apparently keen on the 2030 World Cup to be played in Saudi Arabia, although now that Spain and Portugal have brought Morocco into their bid that prospect looks less likely.

To be fair to Fifa, many of their failings apply to other sports federations. A lack of proper checks and balances, open debate, or scrutiny from the public or press, is always a recipe for bad things to happen.

Infantino can also point to the fact that Fifa’s coffers swelled by $4bn (£3.3bn) last year, while this year’s Women’s World Cup will get a welcome 300% increase in prize money. Yet it was through gritted teeth that he conceded defeat over plans to have Visit Saudi as a major sponsor for the tournament after players and organisers pushed back.

“Fifa is an organisation of 211 countries,” he said. “For us they are all the same. There wouldn’t be anything bad in making sponsorships from Saudi Arabia, China, United States of America, Brazil or India, as far as we are concerned.”

Of course, you might rightly point out that the British government also courts Saudi Arabia. And that trying to send asylum seekers to Rwanda is far worse than anything Fifa could dream up. But at least in the UK a general election is near. Things can change. With Fifa another eight years of the Infantino Project await. Goodnight, and good luck.


Sean Ingle

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Gianni Infantino’s 48-team World Cup plan set to be approved by Fifa
Amaju Pinnick, the Nigerian Football Federation president, said it would be ‘big surprise’ if Fifa did not adopt Gianni Infantino’s proposals to expand the World Cup from 2026

Simon Burnton

09, Jan, 2017 @7:55 PM

Article image
Trabzonspor challenge puts Gianni Infantino’s stint at Uefa under scrutiny
The Fifa president, Gianni Infantino, has been accused of permitting a lax approach towards match-fixing when he was Uefa general secretary during the 2010‑11 scandals within Turkish football, which still reverberate years later

David Conn

15, Dec, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
Gianni Infantino announces 32-team men’s Club World Cup in 2025
Gianni Infantino has risked a major row with Europe’s leading federations by announcing that Fifa will launch a 32-team men’s Club World Cup in 2025

Nick Ames in Doha

16, Dec, 2022 @2:24 PM

Article image
Gianni Infantino’s victory offers Fifa a glimmer of hope amid the gloom
The former Uefa general secretary’s victory in the Fifa presidential election offers a the hope of a brighter future for football’s governing body – mainly because it means Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa does not fill Sepp Blatter’s shoes

David Conn

26, Feb, 2016 @8:00 PM

Article image
Infantino’s Fifa ‘incapacitated’ corruption fight, say ousted ethics chairmen
Fifa has “neutralised” and “incapacitated” its corruption investigations after removing the chairmen and all but two members of its ethics committee, the two ousted chairmen said the day before the organisation’s congress in Bahrain

David Conn

10, May, 2017 @9:11 AM

Article image
Infantino’s jetsetting contrasts grimly with migrant worker’s Fifa case | Marina Hyde
A $5,000 legal challenge over exploitation of workers building for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar pales next to the value of private flights accepted by Fifa’s president

Marina Hyde

12, Oct, 2016 @11:16 AM

Article image
Fifa agrees to pay clubs extra £119m to release players for men’s World Cup
Clubs will have a greater say in the football calendar while the deal could make the European Super League less likely to happen

Sean Ingle

27, Mar, 2023 @4:03 PM

Article image
Uefa members rail against Gianni Infantino’s plan for new Club World Cup
Gianni Infantino’s proposal for a revamped football calendar has met ‘serious reservations’ from Uefa members

David Conn

16, May, 2018 @4:57 PM

Article image
Gianni Infantino rails at ‘fake news’ stories and ‘Fifa-bashing’
The Fifa president blamed the media for distorting attempts to rebuild the organisation while taking on his critics at the football governing body’s congress

David Conn in Bahrain

11, May, 2017 @10:25 AM

Article image
Fifa ethics committee was investigating Gianni Infantino over election expenses
Fifa ethics committee was investigating the president, Gianni Infantino, for allegedly under-declaring money he spent on election campaign, before he organised removal of committee’s chairmen and members in May

David Conn

21, Jul, 2017 @12:15 PM