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Fifa's first female No. 2 steps in to clean up the beautiful game

UN diplomat Fatma Samoura delivering her first speech as Fifa secretary general. The football governing body's president Gianni Infantino made the surprise announcement in Mexico City that he had chosen the 54-year-old, an outsider to the football wo
UN diplomat Fatma Samoura delivering her first speech as Fifa secretary general. The football governing body's president Gianni Infantino made the surprise announcement in Mexico City that he had chosen the 54-year-old, an outsider to the football world, to be his deputy at the male-dominated organisation.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

PARIS • Fatma Samoura, Fifa's first female secretary general, may be an outsider in the football world, but she is hoping her two decades of experience as a United Nations diplomat will help her restore the sport's "tarnished image".

"My goal is to support the programme of president Gianni (Infantino) and to help football restore its tarnished image," the Senegalese UN diplomat said.

"And to those who speak of my lack of experience, I say, 'Give me the time to prove myself.'"

Fifa's new second-in-command is no stranger to the kind of power struggles that brought Fifa to the brink, having served as the representative of the UN Development Programme in post-coup Madagascar from 2010 to 2015 before moving to Nigeria.

"Fifa is the United Nations of football and I bring 21 years of experience in the private sector and the UN in terms of good governance and transparency, and the obligation to make the different federations and Fifa accountable," the 54-year-old said.

Samoura's years with the UN, including with the World Food Programme, have taken her crisis-management skills to hotspots such as Afghanistan, Chad and Darfur.

"We must try to restore football to what it was, the most popular sport that breaches social divides," she said. "And one of the things I am going to try to do is bring greater support to women's football."

Samoura, who was named the successor to disgraced Frenchman Jerome Valcke at a Fifa congress on Friday, will take up her post by mid-June after undergoing an eligibility check administered by an independent review committee.

She said she met Infantino, who was appointed to succeed Sepp Blatter in February, for the first time in November last year.

"I was in Madagascar at the time and it was during a match between Madagascar and Senegal," in a qualifier for the 2018 World Cup, she said. "But we did not speak at all about the secretary general post.

"After dinner, somebody told me about what he had said. And Gianni Infantino had apparently said, 'If one day I am president of Fifa, this is my secretary general.'

"When he was elected, it was me who went to talk to him. I sent him a mail and he called me. He then offered the post to me. He made me an offer and he convinced me."

A mother of three, whose husband's dreams of becoming a football professional were shattered when he broke his leg at 20, Samoura has rubbed shoulders with footballers from an early age.

The daughter of an army colonel, she went to school with Cheikh Seck, goalkeeper for the Senegalese national team in the 1980s, and befriended Cameroonian footballing legend Roger Milla during a posting in Yaounde.

"They even made out I hid him in my car with its diplomatic plates after their (Cameroon's) defeat in the final of the 1986 African Cup of Nations by Egypt," she recalled.

She lists former Bayern Munich winger and now president Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and retired Malian striker Salif Keita, who played for Marseille, among her idols.

Observers said Infantino choosing Samoura, who speaks fluent English, Spanish, French, Italian as well as her native Wolof, represents an image makeover for Fifa.

"She will not be there to make him look good. She is not a gimmick. She will be loyal to Gianni Infantino but she will change things," Francis Kpatinde, a close friend of Samoura and a former editor of the weekly Jeune Afrique, said.

"This is not a puppet who has been put in there."

Tokyo Sexwale, the South African politician and tycoon who was a candidate for the Fifa presidency, said what counted most was her management expertise.

"She's someone who has worked in the system of the United Nations and understands what is required in terms of an executive," he said. "The fact that she is a woman is not No.1 for me. Number one, she must be a human who can be capable."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 16, 2016, with the headline 'Fifa's first female No. 2 steps in to clean up the beautiful game'. Print Edition | Subscribe