Unlikely candidate to co-favorite: Gianni Infantino's FIFA campaign

Grant Wahl sits down with Gianni Infantino, a co-favorite in Friday's FIFA election in Zurich.
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UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino, the co-favorite in Friday’s FIFA presidential election, is an unlikely candidate for the highest office in world soccer. A few months ago he wasn’t even considering a run. But then his boss, UEFA president Michel Platini, was banned from all soccer activities over allegations that he accepted an improper $2 million payment in 2011 from FIFA president Sepp Blatter (who has also been suspended for it).

UEFA, the powerful European confederation, still wanted to have a candidate in the FIFA election. Enter Infantino, a Swiss-Italian lawyer who hails from a town not far from the hometown of Blatter himself. Infantino is one of five candidates for the FIFA presidency, and four of them (all but Sheikh Salman of Bahrain) have been interviewed by SI.com in advance of the election. Infantino sat down with me on January 17 in Antigua and Barbuda, where he was attending a conference held by the Caribbean Football Union.

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You can listen to SI’s interview of South African candidate Tokyo Sexwale here and read interviews with a pair of other candidates, Prince Ali bin-Al Hussein of Jordan and Jérôme Champagne of France. Infantino addressed a wide range of topics, including cleaning up FIFA; expanding the World Cup to 40 teams (he supports it); how to grow women’s soccer; whether Qatar should host World Cup ’22; and why he should be FIFA president.

Here is our interview (lightly edited for length and clarity):

SI.com: Before we get into more serious stuff I will ask perhaps an even more serious question: Who is your team?

Infantino: (laughs) The referees.

SI.com: You don’t have a club team?

Infantino: No, I do. But I am general secretary of UEFA today, I have to be very cautious about this. I am Swiss, I am Italian, so it’s my team in Switzerland and my team in Italy and the national teams as well. But when I watch matches of my team the part which suffers most is the seat, because of course I cannot move—and the neighbors’ arms that are twisted by my reactions (laughs).

SI.com: We are here in Antigua right now in the Caribbean [on January 17]. You were in Rwanda yesterday. Correct?

Infantino: Correct.

SI.com: What kind of travel schedule have you had? Where have you been the last couple of weeks?

Infantino: A pretty crazy travel schedule. I have been all around the world. I have been in about 80 airports in the last two-and-a-half months. I have visited about 50 countries from Papua New Guinea to Chile, from Madagascar to Algeria, from the U.S. to Mexico, passing by Paraguay and Panama and I mean many, many, many interesting countries. Asia as well: Japan, China and India. It’s a great challenge and a good thing on that is wherever you go when you speak about football—or soccer—you immediately have good contact with people.

SI.com: This election for FIFA president is one of the most important if not the most important FIFA election we have ever seen. Why do you want to be FIFA president?

Infantino: Because I am the man who will bring football back to FIFA and FIFA back to football. “Football first” has to be what has to happen now. FIFA is going through a very difficult situation, let’s face it. When an organization like FIFA goes through a difficult situation like this one people who have important functions in football like I do today in UEFA, we cannot simply sit down and watch what happens. We have to take responsibility. We have to go forward. We have to try to do what is right. And what is right is to try and to bring football back to FIFA.

SI.com: What do you consider to be some of your most significant accomplishments in your career in soccer administration? You’ve been in UEFA for quite a while.

Infantino: Well, there are quite a few of them. I am in UEFA now for 15 years. I would have loved to be able to tell you about my playing career, but I have two left feet and I am right-footed (laughs). So actually I could play only for my local team just because my mother was washing the jerseys of the team. So the coach from time to time he would let me play. This is the great thing about football. The magic of football is that at the top level or at the lowest level, the best player or the worst player like me, whenever you play and maybe you score a goal by coincidence, it happens to everyone, you feel like Messi or Ronaldo or Ibrahimovic or Neymar. You have the same feelings and this is what makes us dream.

In UEFA we have been working, and I have been working a lot. I started as a lawyer, a qualified lawyer, and I started in the legal department and the commercial department. I worked in a lot of departments in UEFA. We introduced the club licensing system in UEFA, for example, which was very important to get clubs to structure and organize themselves. Not only big clubs—they don’t need our club licensing—but all clubs all over Europe. We managed to do that. We introduced Financial Fair Play play rules, which brought the losses down from four years ago they were at €1.7 billion in losses in one year in European club football to a bit more than €300 million this year. So we managed to bring it down by €1.4 billion losses in one year. With some strict rules, yes. But rules which were embraced by everyone, by all the clubs. So this is certainly very, very positive.

The competitions that we organize in UEFA—the Champions league, the Europa League, the Euro— are at the top of the competitions on a worldwide level. This doesn't happen by chance. By coincidence it’s down to the clubs and the players who participate, but it’s down as well to the organizer who sets the framework for this to happen. We have been able not only to increase steadily the revenues of UEFA, which were around €5 billion when I arrived as general secretary over a four-year period, and now they are at €13 billion over a four-year period. But this doesn’t happen on its own. It happens thanks to football. If you protect football, the revenue will come automatically. If you have a good image, the revenue will come automatically. In terms of good governance, in terms of good compliance, we apply the highest standards with the tender processes for the sale of rights. We have clear regulations in terms of distribution to the associations, to the clubs, of the revenues we make.

I am very, very proud of all the achievements we made in UEFA also in the fight against match-fixing, against violence, against racism. All of these points we have taken them very, very seriously and we are acting on a day-by-day basis because we have competitions every week in order to eradicate these evils. But what I am most proud of certainly is the fact that we have been able to create a football environment in European football. Everyone celebrates and plays football. In the past, to give you just one example, the national team of Albania will celebrate at the draw if they draw England because they get a good TV rights deal. Now they celebrate because they qualified for a European championship. How has this happened? Because of the investment in the infrastructure and the player development that we have done together because we are increasing the size of the Euro and because of the new dynamic that this has created in European football.

SI.com: We are seeing the end of the era of Sepp Blatter as the FIFA president, where he has been in place since 1998. What is your opinion of his rule?

Infantino: I have full respect for his achievements. There are of course legal proceedings ongoing, and I don’t want to participate in any speculation about that. We will have to wait for the outcome of this to see what exactly has happened and what the different bodies will decide. But aside from all of that my respect goes to the person who has allowed football to be developed all around the world.

When I travel—I was in Africa yesterday, I am in the Caribbean today, I was in Oceania a month ago—they are all very happy with the development projects and development programs that have been presented, that have been carried out. Football has become truly worldwide, and a lot of kids, boys and girls, can play football. And this is largely due to the FIFA president, to his staff, to his people who have made this happen. But then of course an era goes to an end and a new era starts. I want to look forward rather than backwards. Building on the good things, but doing many things better.

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SI.com: Last May the U.S. Department of Justice arrested many soccer officials in Zurich. They have arrested even more since then. FIFA is in a very, very big crisis ever since. Around the world when that happened you had some soccer officials who were upset about the U.S. action, you had some who were clapping and applauding the U.S. action. How do you feel about the U.S. governmental action?

Infantino: Well, my feeling is actually quite simple and clear in that respect. I mean, if somebody has been misusing football or soccer for his own benefits, if somebody has stolen money, then it’s perfectly right that this person goes to jail. The governmental authorities have means to investigate that we as football governing bodies do not have. So it’s right that they do their job, and that those who have misused football for their proper benefits that they are punished for that. However, when it comes to the running of the game, this is clearly a task for the football bodies. It’s up to us to decide what has to be invested where.

How do we want to run football? How do we want to develop football? So from my point of view you know if you don’t think to be afraid of or have nothing to hide then there is no issue and no problem with authorities investigating and taking measures. It’s quite the contrary. From this point of view I am looking at it as a situation which has of course tarnished the image of football worldwide, and we have to address this and show and prove with the reforms, with transparency, with good governance that we can address these matters as well on our own.

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SI.com: Now it’s very likely, even certain, that you would not have even been in this presidential campaign if [suspended UEFA president] Michel Platini had been allowed to be a part of it. He is not allowed. He is banned for eight years now, and you are in this race. But do you really want to be in this race? Do you really want to be FIFA president if you acknowledge that you wouldn’t be in the race if you were in it?

Infantino: Sometimes we have to act in situations, show some courage in certain situations when the situation requires it. It’s true that until four months ago, three-and-a-half months ago, I was not thinking at all about being a candidate for the FIFA presidency. Then the situation happened as we know with the ban of Mr. Platini, and in discussing this with the European associations, with the executive committee, they all felt that we should have a European candidate. Because in this complicated situation Europe needs to be on the table, needs to be at the center of the table. We need to be able to shape and help shape the future of football. The best place to represent Europe, but not only Europe football in general and the football ideas and the good governance ideas for the future. It was a discussion that we had. And following the discussion I was very humbled, but also very proud to be able to stand as a candidate for the FIFA presidency. And I am now fully committed to do my job as candidate until the 26th [of February] and hopefully my job as president from the 27th.

SI.com: There has been a suggestion out there that one of the favorites in this race, Sheikh Salman from Bahrain, may have an arrangement with you in which you agree to bow out of the race and support him in exchange for either becoming general secretary of FIFA yourself or getting some sort of influence for Europe in FIFA. Is that true?

Infantino: No, that’s not true. I know Sheikh Salman formany years. I respect him very much. I respect the other candidates as well, by the way. I have heard this rumor as well. There are a lot of rumors going out there. But I am candidate for FIFA president. I owe this for those that have nominated me to start with. In Europe we have 54 associations, 54 presidents of associations. If they thought they should give me their rust to run as FIFA president then they did so because they thought I could be a good FIFA president. I’m convinced I could be a good FIFA president, and I think as well that this campaign in general for the FIFA presidency, which is a campaign for one of the most important positions in world sport, in world football, has to be taken very seriously with respect as well.

So it’s not about making deals left and right. It’s about trying to convince as many people as possible about your ideas, about my ideas on how to bring football back in the center of the stage in FIFA. And this can only be done as FIFA president. I am already general secretary in UEFA,which is a fantastic job, so I am certainly not a candidate for general secretary of FIFA.

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SI.com: In the United States women’s soccer is very big. Thankfully, in more and more countries around the world that is the case. The Women’s World Cup went very well last year even if the United States had not won it. But there are still many countries around the world where women’s soccer is not big, where it needs a lot of support from FIFA. What is your plan for women’s soccer and making it bigger in countries where it’s not?

Infantino: It’s very important to see the potential of women’s football, women’s soccer (smiles). I attended myself the final in Vancouver this [past] year and I had a chat with several of the protagonists there and then also Mia Hamm, for example, a little bit. It’s amazing what they can move. And I think in many places, many countries of the world this potential has not yet been recognized, so it’s important that we create this sensitivity, that we invest parts of the development programs into promoting women’s football. Because it’s important, because it brings women into the game. It brings families into the game and it can only increase.

In UEFA, we invested a couple of years ago €25 million targeted only to the development of women’s football with specific projects. It’s not about throwing out money and saying now you have to develop women’s football. No. It’s about investing the money the right way where it’s needed to develop women’s football. In Europe many countries have been able to progress quite a lot thanks to the funds, but also thanks to the expertise which was not there yet and has been developed. So my objective is to put this expertise and the expertise which exists here in the U.S. at the disposal of the rest of the world. We don’t have to force or to oblige. We have to convince people. And I am convinced that we can convince everyone to see the benefits of women’s football and to raise its status all over the world.

SI.com: It’s likely that you will get many votes from Europe on election day, but that’s not enough for you to win the FIFA presidency. What is the path to victory for you? Where are your votes going to come from?

Infantino: From all over the world. I have been now in all of the continents. I will continue my travels to all the continents again and I am convinced that I can touch the heart of those who love football because I love football. If I were able to do so then I would have a very, very broad basis. Because what I have seen in my travels around the world is that there are many presidents, general secretaries, administrators of national associations who really do their job almost without means but with a lot of passion.

This has reminded me of my times well before UEFA in the small local club where we are trying to organize new set of shirts or these kinds of things and it was complicated. And you got money here and there and try to convince your parents to help you. All of these people who do football, they deserve that FIFA is there to help them and assist them and this is what I am promising them, is what I am guaranteeing them. Because I went through that myself. And that is why I am convinced that I can touch the hearts of the football people, and they will support me.

SI.com: What are the most important parts of your plan as FIFA president?

Infantino: Well, in my manifesto I outline in quite some detail how I see the future of football. The first part of it’s dedicated to reforms. FIFA needs reforms. Everyone accepts it, everyone agrees that. I have had the honor of being part of the reform party of FIFA before I was even a candidate. So there are things that I believe in independent of the fact that I am a candidate or not. And this goes into redefining the structure of FIFA. The role of the president, the role of the Council, which will be the new name of the Executive Committee, which has to be in my opinion more inclusive. So more members from all over the world, because we don’t need to start counting votes, but arguing, getting arguments, convincing people.

So the more inclusive we are, the better it’s. I want to introduce higher standards of good governance and compliance. Whenever a tender process is made we must be sure it’s made correctly, and if it’s not made we must make sure it’s made, because it’s a lot of money at stake. We have to have the highest standards there. We have to define the rules precisely of what the Council should be doing, what the administration should be doing, the different committees.

We have to be very transparent, very open. For me the most important part is the transparency when the money flows. If you are transparent—and FIFA has nothing to hide in generating money; it’s good that FIFA generates money. Where the money comes from and where it goes, if this is transparent we have solved 95% of the real or perceived problems with FIFA and we can serve as example for all those that had other issues. Some confederations, some associations as a role model to follow in order to not make the same mistakes. One other example as well on the reforms is the term limits. Term limits for all the Council members in FIFA. Not at the national level, but in FIFA it’s important there is new blood and fresh air coming in every maximum 12 years.

So this first part will focus on the reforms. The second part we focus on the democracy or the participation. The first part is for FIFA. The second part is for the associations. Today—and this is the feeling I get from speaking to many associations—they are almost detached from what is going on in FIFA or even in the confederation. It’s a pity. We have to break down these walls. We have to open up. We have to make sure that each association has not only one vote, but also one voice. That we give them a forum to speak, to explain to us their problems so we can understand it much, much better.

And if we can do this we can go to the third part, which is the football development part, which is the main focus that FIFA should be doing. But to do it in a reasonable way you have to have the reforms and the participation of everyone. Football development means of course investing in human resources and investing in financial resources. The human resources are there. We have a lot of expertise in football in the fields of coaches, referees, instructors and administrators who can travel around the world and help football grow everywhere. This is what I will do. We have to increase the development funds. FIFA is generating over $5 billion over a four-year period. So it’s easy to increase the funds available to the national associations. Not throwing out money, but distributing money targeted to the real needs of the associations in full transparency.

SI.com: Based on need, or based on it being the same for every country?

Infantino: Well, the same for every country is available. For some countries who need more there is even more available. For example, in Africa and the Caribbean where they have issues with the travel, which we don’t have in Europe for example. We need to have special funds available to help with the travel costs. But this money is available and will be distributed based on concrete real development projects. And finally the one that makes always the headlines even though it’s not the most important, because the most important is the football development, is the World Cup.

I believe in the World Cup with 40 teams based on the experience that we had also in Europe where we increased the Euro from 16 to 24 teams. I think there is no risk for watering down the competition because the quality is there for 40 teams. Forty teams is only 19% of the members of FIFA, where the Euro with 24 teams out of 54 countries is 45% of the teams. So there is a potential there, but this will allow from a sporting point of view to create a whole new dynamic in the qualification phases because many more teams will have the feeling they could qualify. It will be great for the promotion of football, which is our task because in eight more countries you will speak only about football from November when they qualification is over until June when the tournament takes place, and this is our main task to make sure that people are enthusiastic about football. And of course financially as well or commercially, more matches means more revenue. So I see there are only upsides. You can play with a calendar that takes only three additional days compared to the current calendar, so it’s really not a big burden, but many, many players and fans from all over the world can benefit.

SI.com: Do you think the World Cup in 2022 should take place in Qatar?

Infantino: It was voted that it should take place in Qatar, so yes we should concentrate to organize the World Cup in Qatar in 2022.

SI.com: It’s likely the United States will bid to host the World Cup in 2026. Would you support that?

Infantino: Well as a president you cannot support of course any country, any bid, until it would be voted for by the Congress. But if you look a little bit at the history we had Africa in 2010, South America in ‘14, Europe in ‘18, Asia in ’22. So ‘26 could be maybe in the American region.

SI.com: I wanted to ask you about one of your other candidates in the race, one of the favorites, Sheikh Salman. In 2011 he was the federation president for soccer in Bahrain, and that was at a time when [Arab Spring] protests were taking place against the government. And athletes including national soccer team players say they were imprisoned and tortured for protesting against the government. [Sheikh Salman has denied any wrongdoing.] There are some who believe that Sheikh Salman should not even be in this race because of that. What do you think?

Infantino: I have been reading these things. I have been reading also things with Sheikh Salman saying that this is not true. I honestly don’t want to participate in any speculation. I want to concentrate on myself. I want to concentrate on my program, on my manifesto, without participating in any other speculation.

SI.com: There are five candidates that the voters can choose from in this election. Why should they choose you as opposed to the other four?

Infantino: Because I do football. Because I live football. Because I breathe football. Because football is close to my heart. And because I will make sure that everyone in the world will be very, very proud of FIFA again, putting football at the center of the stage and not other things.