KIGALI, Rwanda — Presidential politics hardly matter when so many voters want to be Gianni Infantino’s friend.
Watch the soccer officials angle for handshakes and face time in stadium suites and marbled lobbies. See the federation presidents pull Infantino aside to thank him for the latest round of funding he has delivered. Glimpse the leaders from smaller soccer nations congratulate him on his successful effort to expand the men’s World Cup, spinning up more opportunity but also ever more money.
Infantino, the president of FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, greets them all with a wide smile. In these moments he is in his element, a confident politician nearing a decade in charge of the world’s most popular sport, forever leading it, or lording over it, depending on one’s opinion of him.
“Trust me, he truly is a gift to football and humanity,” Amaju Pinnick, a member of the FIFA Council, the organization’s governing board, said after FIFA suggested The New York Times speak with him about Infantino.
Slip outside Infantino’s circle of admirers, though, and one gets a different view. Infantino’s loudest critics come mostly from the European leagues, players’ unions and teams that dominate world soccer, and from the continent’s governing body, which has grown to see FIFA as a competitor rather than a partner.
They describe a divisive figure driven by ambition whose questionable decisions and quest for legacy have produced frequent conflicts, flawed ideas and unnecessary drama. Their problem is there is little they can do to stop him: Europe’s leagues, players’ unions and teams don’t get a vote in FIFA elections.
That is why Infantino’s supporters and his adversaries agree on one thing: He will be re-elected as FIFA’s president at a meeting of the organization’s 211 member nations on Thursday. The outcome, they all know, is a foregone conclusion.
Infantino is the only candidate on the ballot.
Infantino arrived at FIFA in 2016 as a surprise president. A Swiss lawyer, he had been asked months earlier to join a small group of soccer officials tasked with helping FIFA navigate the biggest crisis in its history.
Reeling from a corruption scandal that had brought down most of its leadership, FIFA had convened executives from across the world and given them a mission: produce reforms that would ensure soccer could never again be run according to the whims of a small pool of senior executives with unchecked power.
Infantino, a trusted and familiar hand then working at soccer’s European governing body, is remembered for taking an active part in the meetings that produced was an entirely new governance structure: bold plans that created a more formal divide between FIFA’s elected president and its top administrator, but also new policies on ethics and term limits.
When it came time to fill the top job, he then emerged from a pack of contenders as a top candidate to lead the new FIFA. The head of England’s Football Association declared him a “straightforward guy.” More than 100 nations lined up to back him. Outwardly, Infantino appeared humbled by his support.
“I want to be the president of all of you,” he told FIFA’s gathered federations. To bolster his credentials as a reformer, Infantino traveled on a budget airline for his first official trip as president. (The private jet travel would soon follow.)
But he also rejected FIFA’s first salary offer of $2 million as “insulting,” and used one of his first major hires to appoint Fatma Samoura, a little-known former United Nations official from Senegal, to be FIFA’s secretary general. The appointment of an African woman to a previously all-male, European leadership team made for good optics, and the title made Samoura, in FIFA’s rewritten bylaws at least, the most powerful administrator in the soccer body’s history.
The problem was that Samoura, an experienced diplomat, had little experience in the type of sponsorship and television rights deals her new job would oversee. That hardly mattered, according to multiple insiders: Infantino, they said, saw himself as a supreme leader in all but name, one who could, and would, involve himself in matters large and small.
That mind-set was perhaps at its clearest last year: Instead of deputizing Samoura or another deputy to run the final months of preparations for the men’s World Cup in Qatar, Infantino simply moved to Doha, the Qatari capital, and did the job himself.
Power and Position
Figures close to Infantino — he rarely gives interviews — said he had little choice but to take the hands-on approach that has defined his leadership.
“He inherited a mess because of the actions of the previous administration, and he has led FIFA out of that mess,” said Victor Montagliani, the head of Concacaf, one of soccer’s six regional confederations. Carlos Cordeiro, the former U.S. Soccer president who is now a senior adviser to Infantino, described him as an “agent of change.”
Seven years after he won the presidency, Infantino’s grip on power is clear. He is about to stroll to another term, and his popularity is unquestioned among the only constituency that matters: the leaders of the 211 national federations who hold a vote in FIFA elections.
Without an opponent — an increasingly common feature of soccer elections — he most likely will be elected through acclamation on Thursday, with members asked to applaud him rather than vote. Many will do so happily.
A broad sense of approval for Infantino’s tenure is — at least publicly — shared widely, particularly among the dozens of small nations that rely on the millions Infantino and FIFA direct back to them to meet their annual budgets.
Infantino’s support, though, is hardly unanimous. He has waged bruising public battles with soccer leaders from Europe and South America, in particular, and has shown a tendency to overplay his hand, including on his since-abandoned proposal to stage the World Cup every two years instead of four.
Lise Klaveness, the president of Norway’s soccer federation and one of the few women to lead a soccer body, has been one of few national heads to publicly rebuke Infantino’s FIFA — calling out a “culture of fear” that she said prevents critics from speaking out. “The tone at the top is important,” she said in an interview a day before the election.
She described letters sent last year by FIFA to federations urging them to endorse Infantino, which she said had a chilling effect on possible opponents, and confirmed that Infantino does not have Norway’s support. “He has had too many missed opportunities to walk the walk and implement the reforms he arrived with,” she said.
Another frequent critic is Javier Tebas, the head of Spain’s top men’s league. During a recent visit to London he grumpily derided Infantino’s term in office by listing a number of failed schemes, including a few that have led Infantino into open conflict with Aleksander Ceferin, the head of UEFA, European soccer’s governing body.
Infantino and Ceferin have hardly spoken since they first clashed in 2018, when Infantino asked the FIFA Council to grant him the authority to sign a $25 billion contract with an unknown investor — later revealed to be a Japanese fund backed by Gulf interests — to create new tournaments. A complete rupture in the relationship between the two leaders was only averted last year when Infantino backed away from a plan to ask FIFA’s membership to vote to hold the World Cup every two years.
Public objections remain the exception, though, since such disloyalty carries a heavy cost, the leader of one national federation said. There is too much at stake, too much money and too many decisions in soccer that still run through the president’s office, a formidable position that Infantino does not to vacate anytime soon.
A day before the World Cup final in December, Infantino said at a news conference that it had been “clarified” to the FIFA Council that his first term, a period of three years after the disgraced president Sepp Blatter was forced out, did not count toward the 12-year term limit dictated by FIFA’s reforms. That clarification means Infantino could remain president for 15 years, through 2031, a development that one of his most vocal critics said “should ring alarm bells.” (European leaders are less quick to point out that UEFA also quietly changed its own rules to allow Ceferin to extend his term.)
“The culture has not changed,” said Miguel Maduro, FIFA’s former governance head under Infantino and a longtime critic of the way soccer is run. “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.”
He added: “All of this, if it were a country, would be clear evidence that there is a severe democratic defect in the electoral system and the organization of the institution.”
Contrary to the spirit, and perhaps even the letter, of the guiding principles he helped draw up seven years ago, Infantino has refashioned himself as a de facto executive president, cultivating a profile that regularly brings him into the orbit of celebrity, power and wealth.
He appeared to develop a particularly close relationship with the former President Donald J. Trump, for example, visiting the White House multiple times. At the 2018 men’s World Cup in Russia, Infantino’s effect on President Vladimir V. Putin was such that the Russian leader later awarded him a state medal.
Even the site of this week’s FIFA Congress feels politically savvy: Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s strongman leader, was given the privilege of hosting the presidential election after having hosted a meeting of the organization’s board in 2019. That loyalty will not go unnoticed on a continent that is home to more than a quarter of FIFA’s 211 presidential voters, each one held by a federation that now receives $8 million across each four-year World Cup cycle.
FIFA listed that sevenfold increase in payments to federations first in its response to a request for Infantino to outline his biggest achievements as president.
“FIFA under President Infantino stands for due processes, serious and professional approach to things,” a spokesman said on Infantino’s behalf. “Money doesn’t ‘disappear’ anymore.”
There is, in fact, more of it than ever: Under Infantino, FIFA persuaded the Department of Justice that it had been a victim of the corruption of its previous leadership. As a reward, FIFA stands to collect a hefty share of a $200 million payout as restitution.
Peace and Protest
With most of his membership fully behind him, Infantino may not have winning critics over high on his agenda in his next term. Still, olive branches are in the air: Before last year’s World Cup, FIFA executives met with UEFA officials to draw up a series of “red lines” that, they hoped, might avert future crises. Infantino and Ceferin were not present at the meetings.
Rather than seek a peace with soccer’s traditional powers, Infantino has sought to build new alliances instead, most recently in Gulf States like Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Those relationships have helped secure millions in sponsorship income for FIFA, which continues to struggle to attract new partners from Europe or North America, but the secrecy in which the agreements have sometimes been made has been a consistent source of controversy.
Most recently, Australia and New Zealand objected after learning through news media reports that FIFA was poised to sign Saudi Arabia’s tourism agency as a lead sponsor of this year’s Women’s World Cup, which the two nations will co-host. Facing blowback, the deal now appears to be on hold.
Infantino’s power and electoral appeal, though, remain undimmed. Few national federations have spoken out against him, and none are publicly opposing his re-election. At least one, though, is weighing a tiny act of rebellion when Infantino stands to accept his new term, its president said.
It is considering not applauding.