It took time for Gianni Infantino to warm up to the idea of running for the FIFA presidency.
He didn’t declare his candidacy for world soccer’s top job until October, just hours before the deadline. And even then he was only holding a spot for his boss, UEFA leader Michel Platini, who had been accused of ethics violations.
But after Platini was banned from the sport for six years, the 45-year-old Infantino stayed in the race and Friday he was the upset winner after a six-hour election drama that required two ballots to sort out.
“I am feeling a lot of emotion and have not fully realized yet what has happened,” said Infantino, who repeatedly tapped his heart and appeared on the verge of tears after the results were announced. “It is still very fresh and it’s been a long and exciting journey and I probably need some time to chill out and see what has happened.”
That sent the election to a second ballot for the first time in 42 years, with a simple majority of the 207 votes cast sufficient for victory. Infantino got over that bar easily, earning the support of 115 FIFA delegates to serve out the remaining 39 months of embattled President Sepp Blatter’s term.
Blatter, elected for a fifth time in May, was suspended along with Platini by FIFA’s ethics committee last fall amid bribery and corruption scandals.
After Friday’s vote, Infantino quickly struck a tone of healing and inclusion.
“Today was an election but not a war, a competition but not a fight,” he told reporters. “It was a sporting contest. We now have to build bridges, not walls.”
Although Infantino spent 16 years with European soccer governing body UEFA, the last seven as its secretary general, most fans knew him primarily as the guy who handled the ping-pong balls during the annual Champions League draw. But behind the scenes, he built a reputation as a workaholic who grew into his role as one of European soccer’s most powerful and effective officials.
A lawyer with Swiss and Italian nationality, Infantino was born in an Alpine village near the Swiss-Italian border and less than seven miles from Blatter’s hometown.
Infantino has been credited with building strong ties between UEFA and governmental bodies such as the European Union and the Council of Europe. He was instrumental in expanding the European Championships and implanting the controversial Financial Fair Play guidelines aimed at reining in the runaway spending by European clubs.
Under his leadership, UEFA’s revenue almost tripled.
As the ninth president of world soccer’s governing body, Infantino will need those diplomatic and financial skills because FIFA is mired in an ethical and financial crisis that has left its very future in doubt.
Last year the U.S. Justice Department indicted 41 people, many of them high-ranking FIFA officials, over allegations of racketeering, money laundering, bribery and corruption. Swiss authorities have also launched investigations, focusing on the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. And FIFA’s ethics committee has banned Blatter, FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke and Platini — for all soccer activities for six to 12 years.
The FIFA Infantino inherits is undergoing financial tumult as well. Although the group claimed a $2.6-billion profit off the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, several corporate sponsors cut ties with FIFA during its ethics crisis and FIFA is expected to post a $108-million deficit — its first shortfall in two decades — when it releases its 2015 financial report next month.
To change that, Infantino has tried to break free of the cronyism that has longed marked FIFA by stamping himself as someone who is looking out for the interests of the sport.
“I will work tirelessly to bring football back to FIFA and FIFA back to football, this is what we have to do,” he repeated in his first news conference as president.
“FIFA has gone through sad times, moments of crisis, but those times are over,” he told the voters. “We need to implement the reform and implement good governance and transparency.”
FIFA delegates gave Infantino a powerful mandate to do just that, overwhelmingly approving a slate of reform measures before Friday’s presidential vote. The package calls for FIFA to expand its executive committee to 36 members, at least six of whom must be women. Top officials will be limited to terms of 12 years, divided into three four-year terms, and those officials’ salaries will be disclosed to the public.
A stakeholder committee will also be created to “ensure greater transparency and inclusion” through broader representation of players, clubs and leagues. Infantino, a member of the committee that drafted those rules, has 60 days to implement the reforms.
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter: @kbaxter11
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