presidents set to stay
Like them or not, Gianni Infantino and Aleksander Ceferin now represent stability in the leadership of the world game; Infantino as likely president of FIFA for a further five years and Ceferin as prospective head of UEFA for the same period.
The lawyers from Switzerland and Slovenia are both odds-on to retain their posts when they face re-election next spring. Beyond that their futures may diverge, largely due to the nature of the constituencies that they serve.
FIFA remains a stormy sea even if the years of corruption control have been left behind. Comparatively speaking, it is far easier to lead Europe’s governing body, with its tightly organised civil service and competitive structure. UEFA has its internal politics, but they are nowhere near as complex as the spider’s web Infantino sits atop.
Infantino had been UEFA generalsecretary when a chapter of accidents handed him the winning vote at FIFA Congress in 2016 after the bans inflicted on previous president Sepp Blatter and likely successor Michel Platini for their $2million sleight-of-hand in the FIFA accounts. Platini’s defenestration also provided the power vacuum in UEFA which allowed the eastern and Nordic blocks to propel Ceferin to command.
Initially it was thought by many that Ceferin was an Infantino ally. As time has passed, however, Ceferin has emerged as his own man, and his increasing readiness to stand up for Europe has quashed that old theory.
The two men are also very different in style and procedure.
Infantino had been in office just a matter of minutes when he scrapped the concept of a figurehead president which had been set up by compliance chairman Domenico Scala. He wanted to be an upfront president like Blatter and wasted no time in clearing out all the middle and top-level management of the previous regime.
The most recent man out of the door has been Marco Villiger, whose departure was perhaps the most significant. Legal director and then joint-deputy secretary-general alongside former Croatia midfielder Zvonimir Boban, his sudden exit after 16 years at FIFA suggests Infantino is confident the worst of the FIFAGate years are in the past.
Villiger’s unrivalled understanding of the complexities of the scandalscarred years is no longer required to protect the world governing body. Without doubt his sudden fall from FIFA grace has been cushioned by the millionaire terms of a confidentiality-protected severance deal.
After graduating in 2000 from the University of Zurich, Villiger joined FIFA two years later and became head of disciplinary matters until after the 2006 World Cup in Germany. The following year he became director of the legal division. And in that role he decided to bring in top lawyers Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan ahead of the FIFAGate earthquake launched by the Swiss and US authorities in May 2015.
Blatter, remarkably, has denied all prior knowledge of the appointment of Quinn Emanuel. He also believes Villiger and the then secretary-general Jerome Valcke knew in advance about the police raid on Zurich’s Baur au Lac hotel when seven senior football executives were detained on the eve of FIFA Congress
Infantino is so confident that he announced his intention to seek re-election at Congress in Moscow on the eve of the World Cup
on corruption charges. Villiger has kept his own silence. As ever, he has remained content to leave the media grandstanding to the presidents and secretary-generals. His stance is not expected to change.
Infantino, having already raided UEFA for a number of his former trusties, is reportedly considering the replacement of Villiger with Alasdair Bell, who has been director of legal affairs at Nyon since 2010.
Infantino’s confidence is such at present that he announced his intention to seek re-election at Congress in Moscow on the eve of the World Cup finals. He was, in effect, daring anyone to stand against him.
At one time that might have been Asian president Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa, but he has his own problems with Saudi Arabia’s Adel Ezzat contesting the AFC’s top job.
This development is intriguing as Saudi funding is thought to be crucial to the mysterious $25billion offer to FIFA to restructure the Club World Cup and create a Global Nations League.
That would raise speculation about Infantino’s sympathies were it not for the attempt by the Saudi-based BeoutQ pirate channel to undermine Qatar’s BeIN Sports, which has bought TV rights across the Gulf and north Africa to the World Cup, Champions League, Premier League and Ligue 1 among others.
To be clear, the BeoutQ campaign threatens not merely BeIN but the entire protective structure of TV sports rights. FIFA cannot afford to stand idly by, whatever the diplomatic delicacy of Infantino’s political sympathies.
And this is where Ceferin may come into the picture.
Ceferin, in 2016, was the elective preference of the medium and small federations who comprise a majority within UEFA. He has already had expressions of re-election support from several of the major FAs, including England – who will need him onside if, as expected, a UK co-hosting pursuit for the 2030 World Cup is forthcoming to rival the bid from Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina.
This will place Ceferin in an even more important role within FIFA, in which he is already a vice-president. If he can step in where Infantino may fear to tread over the pirate TV issue then his own status will soar.
When Ceferin became president of UEFA he thought, by his own admission, that it was a part-time job. He soon learned differently.
Infantino is 48, while Ceferin is 50. These two can be around for a long time to come. Or, at least, for the next five years. And then what?
Stability...Gianni Infantino (left) and Aleksander Ceferin