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July 04, 2020

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UPCOMING OLYMPIC GAMES

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He is a lucky man, but you have to acknowledge he made his own luck.

At just before 6pm tonight, more than four hours after voting started in his home country of Switzerland, UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino was elected ninth President of FIFA by the comfortable margin of 27 votes over his chief rival Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa.

As little as a few months ago, you just could not imagine this happening.

Even after his predecessor Sepp Blatter abruptly laid down his mandate a few days after securing re-election at last year’s Congress in May, the likelihood appeared to be that Infantino’s boss – Michel Platini, the UEFA President – would move on to secure one of the most powerful jobs in world sport.

When I spoke to both UEFA men last summer at a garden party thrown by FIFA Executive Committee member Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah at the new headquarters of the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) in Lausanne, you would have sworn that both Infantino’s host for the evening and his boss had more of a chance of winning the FIFA Presidency than him.

And yet here we stand.

Platini’s ban from football activities removed a solid barrier to Infantino even entering the FIFA race and his ferociously energetic, at times aggressive, campaign combined with the shortcomings of his rivals to achieve the rest.

You truly felt that here was a man who, having embarked on the contest, was determined to leave not so much as a pebble unturned in his quest for the FIFA Presidency.

In the unlikely event that Gianni Infantino were to have a putt to win the Open Championship, you just know he wouldn’t leave it short.

I was not surprised that the comments of his new FIFA colleagues immediately after his 115-88 victory focused on this energy that he exuded.

For England’s David Gill, his “sheer energy and enthusiasm means he is the right choice to take this organisation forward”.

Belgium’s Michel D’Hooghe, meanwhile, was “sure he will engage himself for 200 per cent”.

But there was a lot of craft in his pitch as well.

If his speech to Member Associations was at times almost manic, with his bewildering switching from language to language and his endless repetition, in one segment, of the word “Africa”, he also delivered the line that got the best response of the day, with the possible exception of some of Tokyo Sexwale’s articulate clowning.

“The money of FIFA is your money.”

With that line alone, he may have dragged a few votes away from the clutches of his rivals.

This relentless focus on the electorate you are dealing with and on trying to make every minute of a campaign count is a hallmark of the London-based Vero Communications organisation who advised him.

This now represents another very considerable feather in Vero’s cap just as the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic race, in which it is representing Paris, is picking up pace.

If reform and renewal were the themes of the day in Zurich, there was one way in which this could be portrayed as a very “old school” FIFA election victory.

Infantino must be presumed to have won, in part, because of his pledges to make generous increases in FIFA’s development spending around the globe.

This is precisely the formula deployed with such success by his predecessor, who coincidentally, hails from a city just nine kilometres away from Infantino’s hometown.

There is clearly scepticism within FIFA as to the extent to which Infantino will be able to deliver on his promises; much may depend on the speed with which new sponsors can be attracted to shore up the coffers.

D’Hooghe, plainly, does not expect him to do anything rash, telling me: “You cannot always realise all the promises you make.

“I think Gianni will have conversations with the financial people to see what is possible.”

His departure, of course, leaves a big hole at UEFA.

Much attention will accordingly switch sooner rather than later to identifying the new long-term leaders of the European football body.

At a short media conference around an hour after his win, Infantino’s first thought was for FIFA’s long-suffering staff: “They went through a difficult time.”

His second was for the body’s stakeholders, whom he promised would be “proud of FIFA and what FIFA will do for football”.

He went on: “I will go to our commercial partners, our broadcasters.

“They will need to regain trust in us.

“And if they do that, the revenues will grow.

“I think my track record from UEFA proves that.”

Barring further statute changes, the new President will serve for a maximum of 11 years, as he is completing Blatter’s term and would hence face re-election in 2019, rather than four years from now.

Five of the eight previous FIFA Presidents, including all the last three, served for longer than 12 years; Jules Rimet, father of the World Cup, stayed 33 years.

Then again, as we keep being told, what constituted good governance 30 years ago is no longer adequate for today.

The same cannot, apparently, be said of the voting process, which lasted over four hours and would have been considered glacial even three decades ago.

Hopefully it will be a while now before we endure this again, but, along with all the other changes, someone needs to turn their mind to how this can be accomplished more swiftly.

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