The crassest leader in global sport was at it again last week, making a comparison between Rwanda’s recovery from genocide to his own struggles to be elected Fifa president for the first time. It was another one of those Gianni Infantino car-crash moments you could see looming from a mile off, from the moment he explained how his 2016 campaign had appeared to hit the skids, before a visit to the Kigali Genocide Memorial encouraged him to keep fighting. Yet on he went, pressing down harder on the accelerator, oblivious as always.
“And I said, ‘Who am I to give up?’” Infantino told the Fifa delegates who had just re-elected him unopposed for another four-year term. “What this country has suffered and how this country came back up is inspiring for the entire world, dear president ... I continued to campaign, and I was elected the Fifa president a few months later.”
How we all grimaced. Yet it would be a mistake to see Infantino as a mere punchline: someone to roll our eyes at when he pronounces: “I feel Qatari, I feel gay, I feel disabled”, or claims that a World Cup every two years could stop African migrants from finding “death in the sea”. The stark reality is his actions are far more dangerous than his words or lack of filter.
What was it the American civil activist Maya Angelou once said? When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. During all those years where Infantino cosied up to Vladimir Putin and Mohammed bin Salman he was showing us.
Perhaps he learned something from Russia’s ruler. A day before the World Cup final in Qatar, Infantino revealed that it had been “clarified” to the Fifa Council that his first term, from 2016 to 2019, did not count towards the 12-year term limit dictated by Fifa’s reforms and so he could continue until 2031.
Infantino’s friendship with Putin may have cooled but others have stepped in. The “dear president” Infantino was referring to in Rwanda? That would be Paul Kagame, who won 98.79 per cent of the vote in 2017. The only surprise was that it wasn’t even higher, given that Human Rights Watch noted it came “in a context in which Rwandans who have dared raise their voices or challenge the status quo have been arrested, forcibly disappeared, or killed, independent media have been muzzled, and intimidation has silenced groups working on civil rights or free speech”.
Speak to senior insiders across global sport, and their criticisms of Infantino are remarkably similar: he doesn’t listen or seek consensus, and he makes everything about him, his power and legacy. As Miguel Maduro, Fifa’s former governance head, put it: “The culture has not changed. Look at the institution from the outside and what do you see? Voting is almost always unanimous. Incumbents are always re-elected and almost never challenged. Presidents that extend existing term limits.”
[ Fifa’s Infantino hits back at Qatar critics: ‘Today I feel disabled. Today I feel like a migrant worker’ ]
The consequences are painfully clear. There was hardly a groundswell of calls for a bloated 48-team World Cup, stuffed with 16 extra teams and 40 more matches. In truth it is the footballing equivalent of a poultry farmer plumping raw chicken meat with saltwater and additives. Sure, it looks bigger. But try tasting it. Yet the move rewarded Infantino’s base in Africa and Asia, who will have far more countries in the tournament next time around.
Infantino has also approved an enlarged Club World Cup which will be played every four years from June 2025, refusing to consult the top leagues, including the Premier League, who are all against it. A more enlightened president would surely be trying to find ways to reduce the load on top players, not flog them.
The one small mercy is that things could have been worse. Infantino’s widely derided biennial World Cup idea appears to have receded. Many also suspect that Infantino was not only aware of the European Super League but was privately behind it, until it began to unravel.
More lunacy could still await us. Infantino is apparently keen on the 2030 World Cup to be played in Saudi Arabia, although now that Spain and Portugal have brought Morocco into their bid that prospect looks less likely.
To be fair to Fifa, many of their failings apply to other sports federations. A lack of proper checks and balances, open debate, or scrutiny from the public or press, is always a recipe for bad things to happen.
Infantino can also point to the fact that Fifa’s coffers swelled by $4bn (£3.3bn) last year, while this year’s Women’s World Cup will get a welcome 300 per cent increase in prize money. Yet it was through gritted teeth that he conceded defeat over plans to have Visit Saudi as a major sponsor for the tournament after players and organisers pushed back.
“Fifa is an organisation of 211 countries,” he said. “For us they are all the same. There wouldn’t be anything bad in making sponsorships from Saudi Arabia, China, United States of America, Brazil or India, as far as we are concerned.”
Of course, you might rightly point out that the British government also courts Saudi Arabia. And that trying to send asylum seekers to Rwanda is far worse than anything Fifa could dream up. But at least in the UK a general election is near. Things can change. With Fifa another eight years of the Infantino Project await. Goodnight, and good luck. – Guardian