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4 March 2016

Exit one smooth bald Swiss career administrator at Fifa – and enter another

After a day of glazed electioneering, Gianni Infantino has been elected. Arguably, this does count as progress.

By Barney Ronay

It would be easy to sniff at the recently concluded Fifa presidential election. After a day of thrillingly opaque stump speeches and glazed electioneering, Gianni Infantino, best known for shuffling the balls during awkward televised tournament draws, has been elected to sport’s most powerful office. Infantino was appointed in succession to the discredited Sepp Blatter, successor in his own right to the discredited João Havelange, and is taking over from the previously discredited temporary president, Issa Hayatou.

Cynics might suggest that, in turning to Infantino, sport’s reigning global powerhouse has swapped an ancient, smooth, bald, Swiss career administrator for a middle-aged, smooth, bald, Swiss career administrator. And yet there are some obvious changes afoot. Fifa presidents have often been accused of clinging to power by offering covert inducements. Infantino, by contrast, won by offering entirely overt inducements ($3m per national association! $40m for each confederation! $1m for travel costs!). In the fevered shadow world of global sport politics, arguably this does count as progress.

Infantino’s election also marks the end of a sensational five-year dramatic cycle. I was in the room in 2010 when Blatter – so shiny, so toasty golden-brown, he increasingly resembled the World Cup itself, a trophy he insisted on fondling and French-kissing at every opportunity – read “Qatar” from his bid-winner’s envelope. There was a stunned silence, followed by yelps. The years since have brought allegations of corruption, ongoing arrests and an FBI investigation that has left Chuck Blazer – the flamboyant mobility-scooter-riding US delegate – singing like a canary.

Blatter’s own downfall centred around a “disloyal payment” in 2011 to his successor-in-waiting, Michel Platini, for which both men have now been banned from football. Infantino was Platini’s gopher and aide, a face at the edge of the picture as the head of European football enacted his long-game assault on the summit. Infantino never wanted to be king of the world. Nobody imagined he would. Somehow he is now. To the outsider it’s a bit like Blofeld’s cat had been unexpectedly appointed head of SPECTRE.

Not that Infantino is all bad. For a start, he’s not Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa, who came second in the vote, and who has been accused of “complicity in crimes against humanity” by at least one Bahraini human rights agency, which may or may not have cost him the odd vote. Infantino has promised to continue the Blatter modus operandi of focusing on nations in need of development money. He made great play of starting his campaign in Cairo and ending it in Cape Town. Even if millions from Fifa’s coffers have been misdirected over the years, Africa’s 55 associations have undoubtedly benefited from its funds, too – or at least from what remains of them once they’ve passed through the many filters of entitlement.

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At the end of this, Infantino has pulled off an impressive feat of political two-face, promising transparency and reform while suggesting to the old Blatter constituency of the drowning-in-honey days that he will keep the tap gushing. “We will restore the image of Fifa . . . and everyone in the world will applaud us,” Infantino trilled, maintaining the expression he has worn throughout, eyes bright with a kind of damp, simpering potato love, a man who simply by standing still as others fell finds himself boss of the family.

The Infantino years will take in the next World Cup in Russia, and may or may not stretch to Qatar 2022, pending his own re-election. Some have suggested that his presidency, which was cautiously welcomed by the English FA, might even open the way for an English World Cup, perhaps in 2030, if the World Cup still exists at that distant point. For those who have watched this parasitic grande bouffe from the fringes, this is the real hope: the faint possibility that Fifa’s unlikely general could turn out to be one of its last.

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This article appears in the 02 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Germany's migrant crisis