The white trainers are just so irritating, aren’t they? So much about Fifa president Gianni Infantino has been a pox on this World Cup, from his oleaginous pre-tournament press conference to his questionable shilling for Qatar as outlined so damningly by Gavin Cummiskey and Ken Early in Friday’s paper. And we’ll get to all that. But there’s something about those white trainers he wears all the time that puts the tin lid on everything.
Now, this column is in no position to shoe-shame anybody. Countless are the times when we’ve been about to go out the door of an evening and it has fallen to Herself to ask, “are you wearing those?” This column has spent more time than he cares to measure trying to convince concerned citizens that the black trainers with the off-white soles he is wearing are, in fact, shoes – or at the very least his closest approximation to shoes. This is often a tough sell.
But – and this can’t be stressed enough – this column isn’t in charge of Fifa. This column isn’t running the World Cup. This column doesn’t be sitting in front of half the planet’s television audience trying to convince everybody that he’s serious about things that really matter only to have half that audience do a double-take and go, “wait a minute – what’s the story with yer man’s white runners?”
He seems so proud of them too. Like he got them for his 11th birthday after saving up his pocket money to go halves on them with his mam. They’re gleaming white and puffy-tongued and so thoroughly, ostentatiously uncool that wearing them can really only be about looking for notice. As he took to the stage an hour late for his farewell press conference on Friday the only surprise was that he didn’t lean back in his chair and pop them up on the dais in front of him.
What is it about the men who rise to Infantino’s level in football that attracts such kooks and oddballs and attention-seekers? Football administration ought to be a fundamentally boring life choice. It is, at its core, about moving money around. And actually it’s a smaller amount of money than you think, given all the hoo-ha that football generates.
Take his press conference on Friday in Doha at which Infantino casually trumpeted the fact that Fifa’s revenue for the past four-year cycle was $7.5 billion – which he boasted was a billion more than expected. He also said that their expected revenue for the next four-year cycle is $11 billion. Pretty impressive, eh guys? Have you seen my big white trainers?
Thing is, for a global giant with notions of world domination, revenues of just under three billion bucks a year is middling enough going when it comes right down to it. For all its rhetoric, for all that Infantino likes to make Fifa out as some sort of uniquely powerful centre of intra-planetary heft, they’re really not much more than a bug on the windscreen with those numbers. Put it this way if, say, Ryanair put together a string of non-pandemic revenues of under three billion a year Michael O’Leary might be thinking about tarting up his CV.
It’s not even that impressive in purely sporting terms. The NFL, for instance, takes in $18 billion a year in revenue. Even in a sport like ice hockey, the comparatively niche NHL pulls in $5 billion annually. Fifa’s $11 billion over the next four years is thin enough gruel by comparison.
The point is, Infantino is no master of the universe. He isn’t some mad genius powering Fifa off into the infinite financial yonder, propelled by the weight of his life-changing ideas. Nor is he some sort of business savant, a galactico CEO who turns everything he touches into gold. He’s just a sports official, a functionary, a hand at the tiller. That’s how it’s supposed to be, at any rate.
If we Irish sportswatchers can teach the world one thing about sports administrators it’s that nothing good ever comes from conferring celebrity upon them. Once they become known for anything beyond the dull and worthy business of making their sport’s trains run on time, it’s generally time to start asking deeper questions. You want the people running your sport to be dull and boring, the sort of faceless bureaucrats you dread getting stuck beside at a lunch.
Everything Infantino says and does screams of a needy impulse to be known for more than that. During the week he took to the stage at a concert Fifa put on for the tournament volunteers, dressed in World Cup trackie bottoms and a zippy top tied around his waist. We know he does nothing by accident and that every public appearance is curated and war-gamed. So why go out on stage looking like an exhausted dad on a Saturday teatime, counting down the minutes before the kids go back to their mother for the week? What’s he trying to say?
The most plausible theory is that it’s really about distraction. Infantino is all persona now, to the point where everything he says and does gets blended down into the same soup of outrage and crazy. So he can go on stage and say he feels gay and he can decry 3,000 years of European imperialism and he can turn up at every World Cup match in a suit and white trainers and... hang on, did he just announce a 32-team Club World Cup out of the blue? He did, you know.
Celebrity sports administrators never work out well. You’d think history would have taught Fifa that lesson long before now.