Would-be reformers in the Democratic Party this campaign season are feeling the Bern. Those of us hoping for a similar movement in world soccer, though, are more likely to simply feel burned by the vote Friday to elect Gianni Infantino as the new president of FIFA.
That’s the sport’s governing body and highest authority, and at the “extraordinary congress” at its headquarters in Zurich, Infantino emerged from a field of five candidates who were vying for the top seat. Unpacking all the details of this gets complicated, but it’s worth following: In terms of double-speak, displays of ego and brazen disregard for the welfare of the powerless, not even a Republican primary debate can begin to touch the sordid goings-on at FIFA.
That the election happened at all is due to the fall from power of Sepp Blatter, who was FIFA’s president for 17 years. That Infantino was running at all is due to the fall from power of Michel Platini, the head of UEFA, the European soccer confederation. Platini had been regarded as Blatter’s likeliest successor, but in December, FIFA had banned both men from soccer for eight years. (Why? The usual, according to both FIFA and U.S. law enforcement: shady payment, lies.) That FIFA’s ethics committee acted at all is itself a miracle — the organization sat idly for decades as its members perfected the art of cutting deals for personal gain. The impulse to let thing slide isn’t quite stifled, either: This week, a FIFA appeals committee reduced the sentences of both men to six years in recognition of “services they had rendered to FIFA, UEFA and football in general.” Feel that burn?
If you were looking for them, all the small things about the election seemed to reinforce the negative view of FIFA shared by most of the world’s soccer fans. The ballot booths were outfitted with backdoors. The election was shown on FIFA’s live feed in YouTube’s “gaming” category. The harmless, incessant Muzak — which played for more than eight hours as the votes were cast, then counted, and men in suits worked the room before a second ballot — was either a random afterthought or a hilarious touch by a producer familiar with the work of Hannah Arendt.
Infantino is a Swiss lawyer who has worked as a bureaucrat in sports governance for his entire career. His birthplace is six miles from that of Blatter, and his manifesto, titled “Taking Football Forward,” puts forth policies that don’t differ that much from those of his predecessor in the most important areas. He wants to increase participation in the World Cup from 32 to 40 teams. (Blatter’s political base was built on the nominally democratic expansion of power from Europe and South America to the rest of FIFA’s 209 member associations, which became loyal to him.) He also wants to increase payments to FIFA’s constituents for everything from development of grass-roots initiatives to more luxurious travel for delegates — which, to a cynic, might sound like a great way to buy votes. But of course, the people who run FIFA aren’t cynics.
Blatter hailed the choice, saying Infantino “has all the qualities to continue my work,” an endorsement that should send shudders down the spine of anyone who enjoys watching the sport. It wasn’t enough to deter the 115 members who voted for the new president. However, in fairness to them, Infantino’s main rival, Sheik Salman bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa, might have been complicit in the imprisonment and torture of people, including soccer players, during pro-democracy demonstrations in Bahrain in 2011. (Sheik Salman denies that.) He still got 88 votes on the second ballot. The U.S. Soccer Federation had voted for Jordanian Prince Ali bin al-Hussein on the first ballot, but then switched to Infantino on the second.
But those votes underscore an even bigger problem with everything the FIFA congress accomplished, which in addition to Infantino’s election included the adoption of a variety of vague and overdue reforms. FIFA is ultimately answerable to 209 member associations, none of which elects its leadership via anything approaching a plebiscite. Every single national soccer association holds a monopoly on the game in its respective country, and there’s nothing fans, players or anybody else can do about it. Soccer Twitter was dripping with derision for what played out in Zurich on Friday. FIFPro, an international organization that looks out for the rights of players, is not impressed. Neither is Transparency International.
Simply to get his name on the ballot, a candidate had to have the support of at least five of these national associations, none of which has changed in composition since the merciful end of Blatter. Who, before getting banned from soccer until after the next World Cup, was elected, too — over and over and over and over — by the very same people who have now chosen Infantino.
In the most important ways, FIFA continues on as it did before. The people who run world soccer are still unaccountable to fans. The 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2022 World Cup in Qatar remain on the books, even though evidence continues to mount that both were bought. (Putin allegedly secured Platini’s vote by sending him an original Picasso. Platini denies this, too.) Infantino has given no concrete proposals for changing FIFA; he is obviously comfortable operating within the bureaucracy of international sports organizations; and his manifesto makes clear that he recognizes the benefits of pledging large sums of money in order to get things done in the soccer economy. All of which make him similar to the man he replaces.
The strangest thing is that despite all that, FIFA’s flagship product — the World Cup — is so universally beloved that if FIFA were simply to sell it openly to the highest bidder, we might actually praise Infantino for taking steps to improve his organization’s transparency. As it is, whatever energy exists to push for reform could easily fizzle out now that Blatter has been replaced. And we’ll all keep watching soccer anyway.