To my mind, the most telling thing to come from this entire, interminable Extraordinary FIFA Congress wasn’t the election itself—in which Gianni Infantino, previously the general secretary of UEFA, became the new president of soccer’s powerful and scandal-ravaged governing body—nor was it the individual national federation delegates deciding to vote en masse to pass a series of sweeping reforms that quite likely will do more to rehabilitate at least the image of international soccer governance than any new president could. No, the most telling revelation came a couple days earlier, when two internal memos, sent from FIFA’s communications department to each of the five presidential candidates, leaked to the media.
The memos—ostensibly sent to frame the eventual winner as the first, high-profile chance to sit in front of the world and say “We know what we’ve done wrong, and you can trust us to fix it”—were a clear statement about the future of the FIFA presidency. Here’s the Wall Street Journal describing the emails:
FIFA pushed the candidates to highlight its reform agenda and steer clear of any specifics surrounding the scandals that have wracked the organization for the past year.
The memos not only laid out talking points for candidates, they provided more than 40 sample questions they might hear in post-election news conferences. To leave nothing to chance, or a slip of the tongue, FIFA also provided sample answers.
To one question about shaping the FIFA presidency, the memo suggests candidates respond: “The president’s role will be strategic and ambassadorial and no longer executive.”
That last sentence is especially revealing. It wasn’t just the messaging that those who make up FIFA’s core, hidden behind the façade provided by the president, sought to control. It was the fundamental role and responsibilities of the organization’s highest office. The president of New FIFA, they were saying, won’t merely be outwardly pro-reform and transparency and above-board dealing. He will henceforth exist as more of a figurehead.
In that way, Gianni “Johnny Baby” Infantino is the perfect man for the job. Before surprising everyone by throwing his hat into the ring in the aftermath of then-presumptive winner Michel Platini’s fall from grace, Infantino was most known to soccer fans as the guy who emceed the televised show where the Champions League groups and knockout round opponents were drawn. There, the Swiss-born Italian was in his element: glad-handing with former stars, chumming around with various B-list presenters, charming everyone in the room and watching on TV with his easy smile and impressive command of multiple languages (Infantino is fluent in English, French, German, Italian, and Spanish).
When he announced his candidacy and began the Infantino For President World Tour, Infantino came off like a guy who wanted Blatter’s old job as much for the glamour and prestige and fame that went along with such an exalted job title as out of any real sense of duty to head the reconstruction project of a new and hopefully non-criminal FIFA. That the writing was on the wall—and, helpfully, in his campaign advisor’s inbox—that the next president would not be taking over the ungoverned, bribery-laden world of Blatter’s empire and instead would serve a more ceremonial role was probably a plus in Infantino’s thinking. After all, negotiating the terms of backroom deals between various lobbying factions isn’t nearly as fun as trips to Southeast Asia to pose for pictures and cut the ribbon on the new Thailand Youth Development Center For Girls.
The difference between Infantino and the presumed favorite, Sheikh Salman of Bahrain, was clear, then—in image if not quite in substance. Salman, the powerful head of the Asian Football Confederation, ran on the implied platform that he wanted to be the new Blatter; Infantino ran simply for the job itself, with whatever imposed restraints that entailed.
Right before the voting started today, each candidate was given a final speech to make their case to their peers in FIFA and also to the viewing audience at home, many of whom probably had only the slightest of inclinations about what each man stood for.
Infantino’s speech was typical for him. He began by “speaking from his heart,” using the language of his parents, Italian, and expressing his deep and abiding love for the sport. Then he traveled around the world, taking us on a mental journey from Africa, where he promptly switched to French, to South America, delivering this portion of his comments in Spanish, to North America, switching between Spanish and English, to Asia and to Europe. His message was one of progress and the promise of sport, of pivoting away from FIFA’s disreputable recent past while retaining the commitment to spreading joy and growth around the globe through the game of soccer. The ideas were grand, and the presentation grander. More than any policy pronouncements on offer—though his stated desire to increase the number of World Cup competitors from 32 teams to 40 had to have been attractive to the huge numbers of voters outside the traditional powers—Infantino’s remarks sold little more than his own personal charisma.
Sheikh Salman, on the other hand, gave a speech almost straight out of the Blatter archives, though with none of Blatter’s twinkle-eyed earnestness that made you almost root for him. He started by noting that he, too, wanted to speak from the heart (though his speech did come before Infantino’s), to show us his true self by refusing to speak from a printed-out preplanned speech, which, along with being smart stagecraft, doubled as a jab to his AFC rival Prince Ali. (It was also a lie, seeing as he proceeded to give the exact speech he gave the day before.) His comments themselves were heavy on promises not to overlook the small federations, to focus on their wants and needs even more than those of the more prominent countries.
Blatter’s stroke of genius was to build his base of power atop the small but numerous federations by gifting them financial benefits and positions of power far outstretching their relative size and import, which in turn earned him their undying support and outsized voting power. The prominent position of the little federations in Salman’s hypothetical regime, as well as the accusations of his own shady vote-buying tactics in the AFC presidential race, painted his candidacy as a continuation of the status quo. As much as anything else, that was why he was the strong favorite coming into today; he was seen as powerful because he copied the strategies of those previously in power.
Ultimately, though, it was Infantino who came out on top. He is a perfectly fitting face for what FIFA would like to become in the future. The reform proposals that did pass—which included 12-year term limits, the creation of a new advisory board called the FIFA Council to take the place of the old Executive Committee, the elimination of many other superfluous committees that can no longer be used to curry political favor, and regular, independent audits of FIFA’s finances—probably will cut out some of the rampant corruption that has plagued the organization, and by proxy will limit the damage a powerful president intent on rebuilding Blatter’s empire could do, anyway. FIFA could do a lot worse for recovering its public image and, just as importantly, coaxing back the sponsors that fled, than having a neutered, genial, and agreeable mouthpiece.
None of this is to say that Infantino will lead FIFA into a rosy future of integrity and ethical purity, as Blatter could also be deceptively endearing when necessary and Infantino has hinted at lavish spending on local soccer infrastructure projects, the kind that Blatter found so useful for enlisting the devotion of the small federations. However, if the memo FIFA sent to the candidates before the actual election, coupled with the fact that the most hands-off, figurehead-ready option emerged as the winner, stands for anything, it’s that FIFA is very consciously distancing itself from its old governing style in favor of a cautiously reform-minded one. Now if they can only convince CONCACAF and CONMEBOL and the Asian and the African federations—you know, the actual people and organizations who engaged in most of the criminal activity FIFA-proper took the fall for—to do the same, there might possibly be the potential for some real change.
Photo via Getty