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UEFA secretary general Gianni Infantino elected president of FIFA

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Feb 26th, 2016
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Gianni Infantino celebrated his election as president of FIFA on Friday. Credit Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Gianni Infantino celebrated his election as president of FIFA on Friday. Credit Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

Zurich ( Agencies + DIPLOMAT.SO) – Gianni Infantino, a top administrator in European soccer, was elected president of FIFA, the sport’s global governing body, in an election here Friday. Mr. Infantino will replace Sepp Blatter, who announced his resignation just days after winning a fifth four-year team in May amid a growing corruption crisis.

Mr. Infantino defeated three other candidates, most notably Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, a member of Bahrain’s royal family who has faced questions about his involvement in the bloody crackdown of pro-democracy protests in his home country.

On the first ballot of voting, when a candidate needed 138 of the 207 votes to win, Mr. Infantino received 88; on the second ballot, when only a simple majority was required, he received 115 to claim what many believe is the most powerful position in world sports. On the second ballot, Sheikh Salman received 88 votes after receiving 85 on the first.

The election marked what many soccer officials hope will be a new beginning which allows FIFA to move away from what has been a tumultuous period.

“We will restore the image of FIFA, and everyone in the world will applaud us, and all of you, for what we do in FIFA in the future,” Mr. Infantino said right after the election.

The turmoil began in May when Swiss police officers, acting on behalf of the United States Department of Justice, arrested seven high-ranking soccer officials as part of a larger investigation into corruption in soccer.

Mr. Blatter, the longtime face of world soccer, was re-elected two days after the arrests, but he quickly announced his intention to step down as the investigation widened. Mr. Blatter and Michel Platini, the president of UEFA, which oversees soccer in Europe, were then questioned by the Swiss authorities over what was called an improper $2 million payment from FIFA to Mr. Platini. Mr. Blatter and Mr. Platini were subsequently suspended by FIFA’s ethics committee; both men are appealing their suspensions, which were recently reduced to six years from eight. The criminal investigations in Switzerland and the United States continue.

If not for those suspensions, Mr. Infantino would never have entered the race. Mr. Infantino, who served for more than six years as secretary general of UEFA, which oversees European soccer, was Mr. Platini’s top deputy and was planning to help Mr. Platini in his own bid for the FIFA presidency.

Then, suddenly, everything changed for him.

“Five months ago, I was not thinking to be a candidate, I was not thinking of being in front of you today,” Mr. Infantino said in his remarks before the election. “But many things have happened.”

Despite his lack of preparation for the campaign, Mr. Infantino embraced the globe-trotting nature required and spent much of the past few months traveling the world, visiting federations to try to persuade them that he was interested in more than just Europe’s position as the focal point of the soccer world.

His top opponent, Sheikh Salman, frequently claimed to have widespread support in Africa and Asia but seemed to overestimate his influence. Some voters were likely concerned by the questions surrounding Sheikh Salman regarding human rights, perhaps worried about how it would affect FIFA’s ability to restore its reputation.

Even before the election, advocacy groups called for further inquiry into whether Sheikh Salman was connected with the jailing and torture of Bahraini athletes who peacefully protested against his family during the Arab Spring protests in 2011. On Friday, during the election, a group of protesters outside the Hallenstadion convention hall held up signs bearing photos of corpses and chanted: “Salman, dictator. Stop supporting Salman.” A small crowd of onlookers watched them, as did some members of the news media.

Sheikh Salman has denied all accusations that he was involved in such treatment, but the topic has received greater attention as he has ascended in the global soccer hierarchy. After rising in power in his national federation, Sheikh Salman became the head of Asia’s confederation in 2013 and joined FIFA’s ruling executive committee.

During his speech to the delegates before balloting began, Sheikh Salman did not address the human rights allegations. Instead, he focused on his plans for soccer, highlighting to delegates the ways, he said, that he is just like them. He also highlighted FIFA’s financial situation; the organization reported that it was $550 million short of its budget goals in 2015, in large part because of legal fees and other crisis-related costs as well as vacant sponsorships. And he criticized, without naming him, Mr. Infantino for campaign promises in which he pledged to increase the size of the World Cup and to guarantee increased funding to each member nation.

“I’m not ready to mortgage the future of FIFA just for election purposes,” Sheikh Salman said.

Mr. Infantino, in his remarks, refuted the notion that his proposals were untenable. He also spoke in six languages — English, French, Spanish, Italian, German and, for a short spell, Portuguese — showing his ability to connect with federations around the world. Among the speeches, Mr. Infantino’s was the most traditionally political, as he sought to address each region individually.

The voting itself, as is custom, was an incongruously quaint affair. Voting delegates lined up, alphabetically by country, and went single file into two open-front, white voting booths where they were instructed to leave their mobile phones outside — no pictures of the ballot allowed — before casting their votes. Anguilla started things off; Zimbabwe closed.

Before the voting, each candidate received 15 minutes to address the full FIFA congress. Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan, who was the sole challenger to Mr. Blatter in May but was unable to mount a serious challenge in his second campaign, spoke first and gave a measured address that was largely about his ability to bridge the soccer federations around the world. Prince Ali was seen as a moderate candidate — from a smaller nation in the Asian confederation but with strong ties to the European nations and those in the Americas — yet he failed to even reach his vote total of 73 from the last election; he tallied only 27 on Friday’s first ballot and then four on the second.

The other two candidates were Jérôme Champagne, a former FIFA executive from France, who did not receive any votes in the second round after getting only seven in the first; and Tokyo Sexwale, a South African businessman. Mr. Champagne gave an impassioned speech about inequality in the soccer world, while Mr. Sexwale, who was imprisoned on Robben Island alongside Nelson Mandela, gave an entertaining monologue in which he largely defended his decision not to withdraw before the vote.

“I’m a soldier — I die with my boots on,” said Mr. Sexwale, who then ended his speech by announcing that he was withdrawing from the race.

In many ways, the election was only one piece of a significant day for FIFA. Earlier Friday, the FIFA members also approved a variety of reform proposals designed to overhaul the organization’s governance.

Among the notable pieces of the reform package were the dissolution of FIFA’s ruling Executive Committee — an all-powerful but scandal-tinged body that had been particularly notorious in recent years — and the creation of a replacement body, the FIFA Council, which will have 36 members and a minimum of six women, an all-time high. Term limits and integrity checks for the highest FIFA officials, as well as greater independent oversight, were also included in the reforms, which were strongly opposed from the floor by Palestine’s federation — which called them premature — before being ratified easily, 179-22.

Mr. Infantino, as president, will now lead the implementation of the reforms, which he supported during his campaign. He also has other proposals he hopes to have considered, including the possibility of multiple-country hosts for the World Cup.

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