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Who is Gianni Infantino? The next FIFA president.

UEFA General Secretary Gianni Infantino released his manifesto ahead of the FIFA presidential election Feb. 26. (Walter Bieri/Keystone via AP)
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[UPDATE Feb. 26 12:15 p.m.] Gianni Infantino has been elected FIFA’s new president.

ORIGINAL POST

If not for the layers in the FIFA corruption scandal exposed over eight months, Gianni Infantino would have probably remained a high-ranking bureaucrat in the European soccer orbit. But then the pillars of global power began to tumble.

First, Sepp Blatter as president of the sport’s international governing body. Then, Michel Platini, Europe’s boss and Blatter’s possible successor.

Platini’s suspension last fall opened the door for Infantino, a 45-year-old Swiss who appears to be gaining momentum in his bid to lead FIFA. He is among five candidates in the Feb. 26 special election.

Over the weekend, Infantino was well-received by the Caribbean Football Union, which will have about one-eighth of the 200-plus votes in Zurich next month. On Tuesday, a top German official said the country’s influential federation will most likely back Infantino.

The other top-tier candidates are former FIFA vice president Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan and Asian Football Confederation President Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al Khalifa of Bahrain. Former FIFA official Jerome Champagne (France) and businessman Tokyo Sexwale (South Africa) are also vying for a seat Blatter had clutched since 1998.

The U.S. Soccer Federation has spoken with all the candidates except Salman and has yet to endorse a candidate. Last year, the USSF backed Prince Ali in his unsuccessful bid to unseat Blatter, a decision signaling its desire for change in FIFA. The natural assumption is that the organization would support Prince Ali again, but with Blatter out of power, proposals for reform and Infantino making a serious play, the USSF might support the European.

As Prince Ali did two weeks ago, Infantino unveiled his manifesto Tuesday. The highlight is a call to expand the World Cup to 40 teams from 32 and stage the tournament across regions instead of a single country.

“The World Cup is a unique event, which captivates the entire world for a month every four years,” he wrote. “It is also the single-most powerful tool for promoting football all over the world. By giving eight additional countries the opportunity to participate, we would be giving eight more countries the possibility to enjoy the World Cup fever in a more passionate way, also achieving greater worldwide representation in the process.

“Naturally, this must be properly debated with all the stakeholders involved. But I am more than ready to have this discussion in a constructive way with everyone who cares about football.”

Under Infantino’s proposal, the breakdown of slots would be: Europe, 14; Africa, seven; Asia, six; South America, five; CONCACAF, five; and Oceania, one. The other bids would go to the host country (if only one) and the other based on “sporting merit.”

As UEFA’s general secretary, Infantino was involved in the expansion of the European Championship to 24 teams from 16 this year.

“This has already been a huge success, from a sporting, promotional and commercial point of view,” he wrote, “and I know we can do something similar for the FIFA World Cup.”

Only once has FIFA staged the World Cup in multiple countries: South Korea and Japan in 2002. From an operational standpoint, it received mixed reviews. Infantino has suggested possibly more than two countries hosting matches.

Platini and Infantino were instrumental in UEFA’s decision to play the 2020 European Championship across 13 countries.

He has also proposed rotating the World Cup host regions. “Each Confederation shall have to wait at least two editions before being able to host the World Cup again,” he said.

That would prevent, for instance, well-equipped European countries from dominating the hosting rights. FIFA, however, has already broadened its selections. Since the United States hosted in 1994, the World Cup has gone to Europe twice (France and Germany), Asia (South Korea-Japan), Africa (South Africa) and South America (Brazil). Europe will stage the 2018 World Cup (Russia), followed by the Middle East (Qatar).

CONCACAF — which encompasses North America, Central America and the Caribbean — would seem to have the best shot for 2026.

Infantino also promises financial incentives for member nations by distributing a greater share of FIFA’s reserves: $5 million for developmental projects and operations, up from $2 million in the last four-year cycle. Additional funds would be made available for travel expenses.

Each of the six confederations (CONCACAF, UEFA, Asia, South America, Africa, Oceania) would also receive $40 million for developmental projects.

Infantino is bullish on technology to help eliminate goal-scoring controversy.

“FIFA shall start an open debate with all stakeholders on the further use of technology in the game,” he wrote. “Proposals should be fully tested and tahe potential impact on the flow of the game should be studied in detail. Finally, this has to be an objective assessment based on the best interests of football.”

The Associated Press reported the International Football Association Board, which determines the laws of the game, is preparing to approve trials with a type of video-replay system for referees.

Addressing FIFA’s broader problems, Infantino wrote:

“My manifesto is based on three fundamental pillars – reforms and good governance, democracy and participation and football development. These are for me the major priorities for action.

“Clearly rebuilding trust in FIFA is key and it is imperative that the organisation, and everyone linked to it, embraces reforms to ensure FIFA becomes a modern, credible and transparent world governing body.  These reforms have to be both structural and cultural and we need to have much stronger transparency in financial management.”

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