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A dark horse candidate–Michel Platini’s lieutenant at the UEFA–emerged as the victor in a tense, six-hour FIFA presidential election in Zurich as member nations sought to put behind them years of scandal that cost Sepp Blatter his job as world soccer boss and led to the indictment of 41 soccer officials and marketing agencies.
Gianni Infantino, an Italian-Swiss attorney who grew up in the Alpine Village of Brig–just seven miles from Blatter’s hometown of Visp–surprisingly finished first in the initial balloting, attracting 88 votes to 85 for the favorite, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim of Bahrain, 27 for Prince Ali bin Al Hussein of Jordan and seven for Jerome Champagne of France. With no one having won a two-thirds majority, that set up a second ballot for the first time in 42 years, and with a simple majority of the 104 votes needed, Infantino out-polled Salman, 115 to 88. Ali received four votes and Champagne none.
Salman, the head of the Asian Football Confederation, was the front-runner during the four-month campaign, but he apparently was undone by concerns over his actions during the Arab Spring riots of 2011. Infantino only entered the race in October to hold a place for Platini, who was under investigation for financial wrongdoing and ultimately was banned from soccer activities by FIFA for six years.
Infantino, 45, will be president until May 2019, completing Blatter’s term. Blatter resigned under pressure last May, four days after winning a fifth four-year term as FIFA chief. He subsequently was banned for eight years–later reduced to six–for financial mismanagement related to his dealings with Platini.
Before the election the member federations approved a wide-ranging slate of reforms intended to increase transparency, foster greater inclusion and restore the confidence of sponsors. Among them, FIFA presidents will be limited to three four-year teams, and the FIFA Executive Committee will be expanded from 24 to 36 members (six of whom must be women) and renamed the FIFA Council. [February 26]
Comment: Best of luck to Infantino in righting the FIFA ship. But beware of another Swiss bearing gifts.
Just as Blatter before him and Brazilian Joao Havelange before him, Infantino assumes the world soccer throne having made offers to please the have-nots among the membership, including more funding steered in their direction from the $5 billion taken in by the 2014 World Cup. But for those who consider the World Cup the greatest of all sporting events, what’s troubling is Infantino’s stance that the tournament be expanded from 32 finalists to 40.
It doesn’t seem like much: eight extra nations, probably 10 groups of four teams instead of the eight groups of four at Brazil ’14 and every World Cup since France ’98. But does international soccer’s biggest stage really need an additional eight no-hopers, eight teams that under today’s format wouldn’t have even been strong enough to earn the opportunity to finish last in a World Cup first-round group?
World Cups have had contenders who hadn’t a prayer of even surviving the opening round of a 16-nation tournament, from Dutch East Indies in 1938 and South Korea (0 goals for, 16 against, in two matches) in 1954 to Zaire (a 9-0 loser to Yugoslavia) in 1974. But while the balance of power around the world has improved, FIFA has maintained the World Cup gap between the strongest nations and the rest by expanding the tournament, first to 24 nations in 1982, then the present 32 in ’98. As a result, the finals remains diluted, and we get performances like those of Cameroon, Australia and Honduras two years ago, which went a combined 0-9-0 with five goals scored and 26 conceded. That amounted to matches not worth watching on what is the sport’s grand stage.
The parameters for the 2018 World Cup in Russia and ’22 in Qatar have already been set, so the first time Infantino could spring a 40-nation tournament on the world wouldn’t be possible until 2026, whose host–the U.S., perhaps–has yet to be determined. But Americans already have seen how these things get out of control. The NCAA basketball tournament started modestly enough in 1939 as an eight-school affair. Within a dozen years it had been expanded to 16, then doubled again in 1975. Four years after that it was 40, and the year after that 48. It has since grown by degrees to 68 schools, and for the past five years there has been pressure to expand it to 128. And the driving force behind this amazing expansion has been–no surprise here–television money.
Infantino has to lead the reform of FIFA while his organization deals with a current deficit of $108 million. A tall order. Should he win a term in his own right, he’d have the opportunity to make a 40-nation World Cup a reality in 2026. And he would know how to get it done. In his previous post, as UEFA general secretary, Infantino oversaw the expansion of the European Championship from 16 teams to 24. If that seems bloated, it is: That’s nearly half the UEFA’s membership of 54 nations. Ridiculous, but countries like San Marino, Liechtenstein and Andorra can dream, now, can’t they? And soccer fans who want to watch a competition like the Euro Championship that offers the highest possible quality can hope that no-hopers like that continue to be able to do nothing more than dream.
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