Heart Of Football

Transparency calls, cash talks

We'll see if Infantino is fully committed to clean-up as new era of openness beckons

So, has the earth moved beneath Fifa House, and has the darkest day passed?

It is easy to wish for. But anyone still interested hoped for a fresh start, fully divorced from the sleaze of the past 40 years, had to consider that among the first endorsements for Gianni Infantino as the new head of the global game, was this:

"He has all the qualities to continue my work," said Sepp Blatter.

Sacre bleu, as they say in the Swiss Alps where the region of Valais has now given us not one, but two, leaders of Fifa in succession.

Fixing Fifa (not a term for the faint hearted) needs the very opposite to what festered under Blatter's "work".

What we must hope now is that Infantino's new mandate includes fully audited accountability, tracing every dollar to the grassroots they are supposed to foster.

The two men apparently did, as near neighbours often do, take mulled wine together at Christmas. Blatter, the near 80-year-old who is under criminal investigation and banned from Fifa for six years, approved of his younger countryman's rise to his seat, his salary, his privileges.

In return, when Infantino flew several times around the world at Uefa's expense canvassing for votes to keep the leadership under European control, he said of the disgraced Blatter: "I respect very much all the work he did in terms of football development, in particular around the world."

South African Tokyo Sexwale (right), who pulled out just before the ballot, speaking to Jordan’s Prince Ali, while Swiss Gianni Infantino listens during the Extraordinary Fifa Congress. PHOTO: EPA

Blatter rose to power as an administrator who first assisted, then replaced, the Brazilian Joao Havelange, principally by handing out money to the burgeoning number of federations (now 209) who as members of the "family" each get one vote in the four-yearly presidential election.

One key element to Infantino's candidature was to pledge to double the handout, from US$2.5 million to US$5 million (S$7 million) every four years - each.

At a time when sponsors are fleeing Fifa, and lawyers are sucking the organisation dry even before any court proceedings follow the dawn raids on Fifa bigwigs last year, we might have expected the handbrake on spending.

But that was Sheikh Salman's calamitous own goal in Friday's election. The Bahraini royal declined to match the Swiss lawyer's cash pledges. He told the delegates: "I'm not ready to mortgage the future of Fifa just for election purposes."

His words might have been financial prudence, and might make sense in Kuala Lumpur where he runs the Asian confederation.

But Fifa's needy brethren are not going to vote for prudence while the other guy is offering double the cash.

What we must hope now is that Infantino's new mandate includes fully audited accountability, tracing every dollar to the grassroots they are supposed to foster.

Call me cynical, but even with the "Reform Package" that 179 of the 209 members voted for on Friday, we have no idea how this policing and probity is to be brought about.

I like the reforms that are said to come into action within 60 days.

Abolishing the tainted 24-member Fifa executive committee that was in fact the seat of corruption, in favour of a 36-strong Fifa council is long overdue.

Stipulating that at least six of that council (one per confederation) must be female is welcome, so long as the women turn out to be less corrupt than the men who filled their boots.

Separating the administration bodies from the judicial ones, having full disclosure of salaries, preventing old presidents from hanging on to the dinosaur age sounds good.

Transparency is the buzz word. May we wonder if transparency extends to knowing which 30 national associations did not vote for the reforms? Or why it was necessary to shroud in secrecy such a ballot?

But, back to the presidency.

Infantino and Sheikh Salman were virtually neck and neck on the first ballot. The second switched 30 votes from makeweight candidates Prince Ali of Jordan and Blatter's former aide Jerome Champagne decisively to Infantino.

No surprise there. Sheikh Salman, together with Sheikh Sabah of Kuwait who pulls the strings in Olympic and Fifa voting among Asians, were so disparaging of the Jordanian prince that they effectively told him to butt out; Salman was Asia's man in this campaign.

So when Fifa delegates got into a huddle after the first ballot, you could almost see vengeance being exacted. The US federation president Sunil Gulati told media that once it became clear only two men could win this fight, he did all he could to ensure Infantino won.

There's democracy for you.

No doubt many in the room felt safer keeping the leadership in Europe rather than the Middle East.

Sheikh Salman may or may not have been implicated in the arrests and alleged torture of opponents to his family's rule in Bahrain - but the conflict between a Sunni monarchy and a majority Shiite population is scary for any global organisation.

But I don't believe prejudice swung this election. I also don't think the members care as much as the outside world does about corruption. It came down to who offered most.

It will take some time before we can judge whether Infantino is a leader, or a bureaucrat promoted to presidency.

First among his welcomers was the European Club Association, which represents the richest clubs. "We expect to cooperate with Gianni Infantino as Fifa president in a transparent, democratic and fruitful manner for the benefit of football," it said.

However, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, the chairman of this wealthy club elite, fired the first shot in opposition to Infantino's promise to expand the World Cup from 32 to 40 teams. "We cannot further burden the players," he said, "Fifa must fulfil this responsibility for the health of the players."

Expansion was another vote winner because, again, everyone wants a slice of the profitable pie of the World Cup. Money, money, money.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 28, 2016, with the headline 'Transparency calls, cash talks'. Print Edition | Subscribe