Tuesday, August 23, 2016

What has Gianni Infantino been doing?

Tomorrow marks day 180 of Gianni Infantino's presidency and the main question I have is what the hell has he been doing?

Before the election he presented his eleven-point ninety-day plan. He has now had two sets of ninety days and the vast majority of his points remain unfulfilled. If I am to be generous, I'd say he has completed five, with five incomplete and one, bizarrely, never announced.

Those that have been completed include his ridiculous FIFA Legends team, which appears to be the opportunity for Infantino to swan about with some famous players at a fairly substantial cost and with very little payback to the world game.

He did "launch the process for" the 2026 World Cup, but all that means in practical terms is that a decision was made on when and where the next meeting would take place.

He claims to have met with sponsors to reassure them that FIFA is moving in the right direction, although we have seen nothing concrete emerge from this other than the announcement of a single large sponsorship deal with the Chinese Wanda Group, which incidentally also purchased Philippe Blatter's Infront Media company.

One high profile undertaking was to appoint Fatma Samoura as the new Secretary-General. The response to this has been mixed. On the one hand, the appointment of an African woman with governance experience in an international body can be seen as a fresh, bold, exciting move. On the other, many questioned why Infantino proposed someone with no background in football. Was it so he could maintain control of FIFA, rather than allow that to move to the Secretary-General as was supposed to happen as part of the series of reforms approved last year? In addition, many were hoping for a proper recruitment process with the chance to vet multiple candidates before the decision was made. Instead, Infantino took a unilateral decision and presented it out of the blue at the FIFA Congress, where it takes a brave delegate to vote against anything proposed by the President.

Clearly the jury is still out on the new Secretary-General. I am willing to give her time to grow into the job. I hope she will prove to be a good appointment and will ensure FIFA follows governance best practices rather than continuing on as an old boys' network with 'gentlemen's agreements' made in dark booths in 'discrete' restaurants. But so far it appears nothing has changed.

An important task that was completed was to set up new football development regulations. While they appear much more transparent than the previous guidelines for distributing FIFA's Financial Aid Programme and awarding GOAL Projects, I have major concerns with the equal distribution of development funds to each member association. US$5 million is a huge amount for Angulla, Montserrat or Dominica and a mere drop in the bucket for Angola, Nigeria or the Democratic Republic of Congo. Other countries, such as the USA, Germany, Japan or England are hardly in need of this money. Giving each member the exact same amount may be 'fair', but it hardly leads to the best outcomes.

I would also like to have seen post-implementation review included to the Development guidelines. It is all very well ensuring that development money is spent as intended, but if the positive outcomes of that spending are never realised then the project has been a flop. For example, a training centre with a nice pitch and some decent facilities may be planned and duly constructed, but if it is seldom used because it is prone to flooding or difficult to access or impossible to maintain, then it has not met its aims and the lessons learned from such a failure need to be taken into consideration when future development projects are awarded.

The five things on Infantino's 90 Day plan that are complete were already done by Infantino's ninetieth day. So what has he been doing in the last ninety?

We know he spent some time dealing with a self-made crisis that almost (and probably should have) led to him undergoing a FIFA Ethics Committee hearing. There were a number of payments he wanted for a laundry list of questionable items, including a car and driver for his family, some staff he wanted flown to Zurich and back every week, the infamous exercise machine, mattresses, flowers and tuxedo and of course the questions about his use of private jets for flights to Moscow, Doha and a visit to the Vatican and possible conflicts of interest that resulted.

We also know he ousted a number of FIFA staff including Domenico Scala and the whistle-blowers from the Travel Department who questioned his unsanctioned travel.

He also forced through his own ability to remove and replace any member of any of FIFA's independent committees, including the ethics committee, thus rendering that particular body potentially beholden to himself.

As for his public appearances, he made a trip to Nigeria to meet with controversial Nigerian Football Federation boss Amaju Pinnick, who used Infantino's visit as a public display of support from FIFA. It would be fair to say that Infantino's faith in Pinnick is not matched by everyone in the Nigerian football community.

Infantino was also seen at three major football tournaments. He was in East Rutherford, NJ to attend the Final of the Copa America Centenario, was also present at a number of the Euro 2016 matches in France, and most recently was spotted in Brazil during the Olympics having his picture taken with disgraced ex FIFA Exco member and CBF leader Marco Polo del Nero. To say he displayed questionable judgement is an understatement.

One major tournament Infantino did not attend, which certainly came as no surprise to me, was the Oceania Nations Cup in Port Moresby. Infantino has always struck me as a man who likes the glamour of hobnobbing with the well-heeled and famous. Sitting in the heat and humidity of the Sir John Guise Stadium while watching the home team score eight goals without reply against Samoa on a dodgy playing surface perhaps doesn't fit that profile.

In fact I doubt Infantino will show his face in Oceania again until it's electioneering time, when he'll once again make a fleeting appearance, don a colourful Pacitic Island-style shirt, make a few patronising remarks, tweet some photos and be on his way to more glamorous locations. At least, that's what his history suggests.

If he were serious about the development of football in Oceania, he would, among other things:
- work on combining Oceania World Cup Qualifying with Asia's
- introduce massive development of the women's game to give New Zealand some proper competition
- set in place programmes to improve the quality of refereeing, which sometimes sees technical errors made even in international competitions
- ensure Wellington Phoenix's place in the A-League is forever sanctioned by FIFA so that there is at least one professional club within the confederation
- assist Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Federated States of Micronesia to become full FIFA members
- change the format of the World Club Cup so that the Oceania representative shouldn't always play the hosts in the opening game, but instead the Confederation which performed worst in the previous year's tournament should be given that dishonour
- revamp the FIFA Rankings so that they don't unfairly discriminate against Oceania nations whose ability to play matches is severely hampered by the high costs of travelling in the Pacific.

The issue Infantino has been most voval about has been expanding the World Cup to forty teams. I have written about this before explaining why I think it is a terrible idea, both in terms of leading to an unfair format and in increasing the demands on players and fans.

He falsely equates the 50% increase in teams qualifying for the Euros with what would be a 25% increase in teams qualifying for the World Cup, suggesting that it would have the same affect on increasing the number of nations that would feel they have a decent chance of qualifying.

But in this he is way off the mark.

As of the beginning of qualifying for the Euros, there were 53 UEFA members. If 16 qualified, that meant around 30% would be successful. Increasing that to 24 qualifiers meant a little over 45% would be successful. That's a big jump from 30% to 45%. Of course more of the mid-level nations will think they have a chance.

FIFA has 211 members. If 32 qualify for the World Cup, that's just over 15%. If 40 qualify, that's just under 19%. An increase from 15% to 19% will have a negligible affect on which countries think they can qualify. The drawbacks of expansion (unwieldy and unfair format, massive increase in meaningless games, extra demands on fans and players) are not worth this small increase.

In the sphere of FIFA tournament expansion, what Infantino should be focusing on is the women's game. Currently every FIFA men's tournament has more teams than the women's counterparts. And men also have some tournaments that women don't have (Confederations Cup, World Club Cup, Futsal World Cup and Beach Soccer World Cup). If Infantino is serious about equality here is an opportunity to do something about it, instead of paying lip service to the issue. Yet instead, everywhere he goes his message is that the men's tournament should be expanded, reinforcing the view that women's football doesn't count.

The biggest concern I have is that despite Infantino making Transparency point number one on his 90 Days list, if anything we have seen a reduction in transparency under his administration.

I see no new releases about meeting minutes, financial spending, key performance indicators, any sort of charts measuring various metrics, useful datasets made available for the general public. We still await the announcement of his salary. There has been no hint that the Garcia Report will be released any time soon, or that Qatar will be held to higher standards over its immigrant worker conditions. He never responded over the fiasco in Africa involving how teams would be seeded for the World Cup qualifying final round draw. And as alluded to earlier, he reduced the independence of some of FIFA's committees.

There's been nothing new on tournament hosting bidding, doping, discrimination or matchfixing. Meanwhile some countries are banned for governance interference in football matters while others proceed without sanction.

And, of course, we were unaware that there was an ethics violation hearing against Infantino himself until such time as FIFA could announce that it wouldn't proceed.

This from a man who promised the following on page 5 of his manifesto.

Overall Infantino has wasted six months. He has been bad for transparency and good governance. He has been bad for women's football. He has failed to address many important issues.

All this lack of transparency and action comes despite a promise Infantino made in pre-election letters to each of the member associations.

And let us not forget what he said in his victory speech.

What he has done is promote himself, haggle over his own salary and bonuses despite his numerous protestations that his salary isn't important, and attempt to shore up support by offering $5 million to each member association every four-year cycle, and try to convince them that one of the eight extra World Cup spots might just fall the way of any given member association.

Not that I expected anything different. He was always the accidental president.

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