For the first time in nearly three decades global soccer has a leader whose name isn’t Sepp Blatter.
After passing sweeping reforms earlier in the day, FIFA’s 207 delegates elected Gianni Infantino, a European soccer official who hails from a Swiss canton a few miles from Blatter’s hometown. Infantino won with 115 votes, beating three other contenders.
Despite their shared geography, Infantino represents a break from the imperious and scandal-ridden Blatter who ruled FIFA with an iron fist even as he doled out cash to patrons in far-flung corners of the globe.
In choosing Infantino over the other leading candidate, Bahrain’s Sheikh Salman al Khalifa, delegates rejected a staunch Blatter ally for a career soccer bureaucrat who has vowed sweeping change to win back skittish sponsors even as he attempts to lead FIFA out of the morass.
“We will implement reforms to make sure the image and reputation of FIFA will come back to where they belong,” an emotional Infantino told a press conference after his victory.
Can Infantino make good on that promise? He’s got a big job to do. Eight months ago, Swiss police swept into the posh Baur au Lac hotel in Zürich, arresting several senior leaders amid a joint Swiss-U.S. investigation into practices’ at the soccer governing body. Four days later and just after the 79-year-old Blatter secured another four year term, he was pressured to step down.
Hours before the election of Infantino, FIFA delegates, with some staying at same hotel where police descended in May, passed the most sweeping set of reforms in the governing body’s 112-year history. The reforms include replacing FIFA’s insular and discredited executive committee with a broader governing council that includes women, and 12-year term limits for the president and senior officials, as well as disclosure of their pay.
Now it’s up to Infantino, a multilingual lawyer and secretary-general of the European soccer federation, to get those reforms implemented even as he fends off investigations on both sides of the Atlantic and works to woo back corporate sponsors. FIFA hasn’t signed a new sponsor since the 2014 World Cup, and with legal bills mounting the organization announced it was $550 million behind in its revenue projections for the upcoming 2018 World Cup.
“He’s not a politician. He’s an administrator and an organizer and that’s what FIFA needs,” said Greg Dyke, chairman of the English Football Association. “It needs cleaning up and it needs sorting out and he’s the best person to do it.”
One of Infantino’s first tasks will be convincing top sponsors that FIFA is an asset, not a liability. Recently Visa Inc., Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Budweiser issued strong statements calling for the organization to embrace reform. After today’s election, former sponsors reminded the world soccer body that simply passing the reforms was insufficient.
“FIFA must regenerate itself and create the needed transparency and cultural change that will restore its image and effectively resume its mission of developing football around the world,” Coca-Cola, FIFA’s oldest sponsor, said in a statement. Visa and McDonald’s made similar statements, reiterating a call for independent oversight of FIFA’s reform process.
The vote was a squeaker. In the days and hours leading up to the vote, it became clear that it would be a contest between Infantino and Sheikh Salman, with the Bahraini’s camp suggesting he had the edge thanks to the endorsement of Africa’s soccer body to go with his own in Asia. So it was a surprise when Infantino led with 88 to Salman’s 85 after the first round of voting. Africa and Asia had long been a stronghold of Blatter, an ally of Salman’s. Infantino’s Europe had been critical of the way FIFA had been run, with his former boss Michel Platini, set to make his own run to lead the soccer body before he was banned from soccer with Blatter in October.
Until Platini’s ouster, Infantino had never been discussed as a potential candidate. He was elevated to the role as a stopgap while his French boss tried to appeal his suspension. With Platini definitely ruled out, Infantino, armed with a $500,000 travel budget, toured the world to win votes.
For some of the delegates, it was the small details that swayed in favor of Infantino. A member of the Uruguayan delegation said the fact they could communicate with Infantino, who speaks six languages, made a difference. “With him we don’t need to use Google translate,” he said. “I don’t speak Arabic.”
Infantino, 45, grew up in Brig, about six miles from Blatter’s hometown. Though never a top soccer player — he played for a while for the third team of F.C. Brig in Switzerland’s fourth division — “his passion was always football, he was and is football crazy,” said Patrick Amoos, a classmate of Infantino’s who now is in charge of sporting activities for the town.
Infantino showed early enthusiasm for soccer management, Amoos said, organizing matches and thinking up ways to seek sponsors for the team. After graduating from the Kollegium Spiritus Sanctus in Brig, a high school founded in 1662, Infantino left his hometown to study law at the University of Fribourg, a bilingual city that straddles the French and German-speaking divide in Switzerland.
Though he’s worked his entire professional life in Switzerland, Infantino speaks at least five languages and at a recent press conference fielded questions in French, German, Italian, Spanish and English. In his post-election speech he also offered words in Arabic, the native language of his wife. After qualifying as a lawyer, he ran the Centre for Sports Studies at the University of Neuchatel before joining UEFA’s headquarters in Nyon overlooking Lake Geneva in 2000.
“It’s a good day for the sport,” said Sunil Gulati, a member of FIFA’s soon-to-be-replaced executive committee. “This morning we passed the reform and we have a president we think very highly of, respect and look forward to working with.”
Infantino appeared close to tears when the result was announced. “I have not yet realized probably what has happened today,” he said.
Perhaps the biggest relief of all for Infantino and FIFA is that on this day, unlike that fateful early morning hotel sweep, no one was arrested.