When we supposed what a Gianni Infantino FIFA presidency would look like back when he won the office in February, we saw visions of a celebrity-friendly, photo op-ready, travel-loving, money-giving, but basically powerless tenure. In some ways, this has been borne out already in his still-budding tenure. In others, we might have underestimated the Machiavellian instinct required to get the job in the first place.
Today FIFA held its 66th annual Congress in Mexico City, in which soccer’s governing body laid out its grand proposals for the year ahead and beyond. The Congress doubled as Infantino’s first opportunity to position himself, his regime, and their aims and ideals in front of the public. A lot of it fit with what we expected: things like the further integration of the views and opinions of retired greats from the pitch through a new, regular, FIFA legends “think tank” program, and promises for more regular get-togethers between all FIFA’s member groups in faraway fun vacation spots like Dubai for everyone to eat, drink, be merry, and maybe talk about how they’re going to spend their millions of FIFA dollars on, uh, infrastructure, I guess.
Speaking of millions, each member association and confederation will be getting a big fat raise on their “development budget” allowance—an announcement which elicited sustained applause from the audience and in response the gentle warning from Infantino of “Don’t betray us. Don’t misuse the money,” like the grandpa who gives his grandchildren $20 for their birthday and tells them not to spend it all on candy. More hand-outs, more flights, more hobnobbing—it was all perfectly of a piece of the image Infantino sold during his candidacy.
There were, however, a couple critical junctures where Infantino seemed to be reaching beyond the limited figurehead role the behind-the-scenes people in FIFA sought to box him into. In their emails to all the candidates before the last election, the FIFA communications department proffered their interpretation of what the president’s office would be going forward: “The president’s role will be strategic and ambassadorial and no longer executive,” they wrote, directly stating that the kind of centralized authority figure that typified Sepp Blatter’s time was dead. In its place would be a ceremonial role, where the actual work of operating a billion-dollar business would be left to the background staff.
This, we thought, would suit the publicity-friendly Infantino fine. We may have spoken too soon.
The biggest headline from today was the appointment of Fatma Samoura as the new secretary general—essentially FIFA’s second-in-command. The choice of Samoura—a Senegalese woman with a long history in humanitarian aid work—was heralded for its demonstration of a commitment to diversity, as she became both the first woman and the first African to hold that title. Subtly, though, it potentially signals a sly power grab by Infantino himself.
FIFA’s secretary general, under the position’s disgraced former title-holder Jérôme Valcke, has been a very prominent, business-oriented job. Valcke was personally involved in negotiating all kinds of sponsorships and media rights deals for FIFA’s crown jewel, the World Cup. Infantino himself had many of these same duties with respect to his role as UEFA’s secretary general before he became FIFA’s president.
By hiring Samoura—again, someone who has spent the last 20 years at the UN, not in the business world—there is an open question as to who will take the reigns on things like broadcasting rights contracts. Was Samoura brought in to fulfill these duties herself, though she doesn’t have any background with them? Or will her job hew closer to the kind of infrastructural, developmental focus on budding soccer nations that would seem to be a more natural fit for someone with her experience? And if the latter, does this mean Infantino himself will assume responsibility for making the big-money deals?
On top of that potential expansion of the president’s involvement with FIFA finances came a move that could be a straight-up power grab. Among the various new bylaws FIFA passed today, there are new powers delegated to the new FIFA Council, which was created to replace the old Executive Committee. The Council was intended to differ from the ExCo in that it would be less prone to corruption and could more nimbly respond to crises. The latter point requires more power for the Council, which it received in a big way. From KeirRadnedge.com:
The Council proposes that the Congress authorise the Council to appoint the office holders for the remaining vacant positions within the respective committees of the judicial bodies, the audit and compliance committee and of the governance committee, until the 67th FIFA congress and to dismiss any office holders of these committees until the 67th FIFA Congress which shall come into effect immediately.
This is believed to be the clause that led longtime reformer and FIFA audit and compliance chairman Domenico Scala to walk out of the Congress. What it means is that the Council—i.e. Infantino and those he’s picked to serve alongside him—now has the power to hire and fire anyone on any currently standing committee, including Scala himself, and anyone else in previously independent regulatory arms like the Judicial Committee. This could possibly spell the end of real independence, since anyone caught sniffing around something Infantino would rather go ignored could be fired and replaced by someone with a less discerning nose.
As the article linked above notes, Infantino did caution outsiders not to read the worst into his Council’s new powers, asking that he be judged not on what abuses of power could potentially stem from this and instead wait to see how it is actually used:
“We are following a democratic process. If we don’t act we are criticised and if we do act we are criticised but we should also be criticised if we act in the wrong way. Do we wait one year for congress to dismiss committee members who should be changed?
“We need to be flexible to accomplish all the changes. Then let’s see and let’s judge how are the new people on our committees and how they perform in FIFA. So don’t move too fast, wait and see . . . and then judge.”
But that’s usually the whole problem with broad, centralized power in the first place. It’s typically granted in “extreme circumstances” to a “responsible leader” who swears not to use them unless absolutely necessary for the greater good. Then after a couple of uses the authority figure discovers he enjoys flexing his new muscles to further his aims, and pretty soon you’re a strongman.
The main question the cynic is left with, then, is whether Infantino has been playing coy this whole time, waiting for the right moment to grasp more power from a vacuum, or if his potential corruption will be a slower process.