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Opinion

Opinion: Football's fresh start has turned out to be another false dawn

The biggest football federations made a lot of promises in 2016, including increased transparency, integrity and separation of powers. But as DW's Sarah Wiertz sees it, not much has really changed.

Don't be afraid, we bring you glad tidings: At the end of last year, the three most important football federations promised to hit the reset button. The world governing body (FIFA), the richest continental federation (UEFA), and the biggest national football association (Germany's DFB) all entered 2016 without an elected president in place.

FIFA was the first to end the power vacuum. At the Extraordinary FIFA Congress in January, the delegates surprised many by not electing the controversial favorite, Sheik Salman bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa, but opting for UEFA's general-secretary, Gianni Infantino.  Although many delegates had declared their allegiance in public, some obviously changed their minds at the last minute - switching to the candidate whose former offices at UEFA would be searched just one month later by Swiss federal police officers looking for evidence of dubious dealings. Only a rogue could have suggested that anything untoward might have gone on.

Paranoid conspiracy theories

FIFA needed to implement reforms in an effort to stop all the negative headlines. Separation of power, transparency, and integrity were the three big buzzwords of the day. The package of reforms that was passed in Zurich meant that the powerful Executive Committee acquired more members, but now held less sway. The power shifted to the office of the secretary-general.

The FIFA Council (formerly the Executive Committee) is now meant to set the political direction, while the president is only supposed to have a representative role and no longer has the right to sign things off.

Wiertz Sarah Kommentarbild App

DW editor Sarah Wiertz

But Infantino nominates the secretary-general, the council approves his choice and the opinion of the majority of old men who sit on the council is still what matters. Then there's the fact that those who were previously members of the Executive Committee don't have to pass an eligibility check, unlike the members who are entering the council for the first time. Not just that, there's also the fact that the new term limit of 12 years does not apply retrospectively to those who were already on the Executive Committee. Naturally, anyone who thinks such oversights are problematic must be a paranoid conspiracy theorist.

Three birds with one stone

FIFA and the DFB did their best to convince the general public of how serious their efforts at reform and investigating any possible wrongdoing had been. The world governing body opened proceedings against Franz Beckenbauer, former DFB President Wolfgang Niersbach and the then-general secretary, Stefan Hans. For its part, the DFB announced that the legal firm it had brought in to investigate, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, had found a trail that linked Franz Beckenbauer with Qatar, but the DFB also said the firm had found no evidence that Germany had bought votes ahead of the election that resulted in it being awarded the 2006 World Cup.

Then there was this coup: At the next FIFA meeting in May, President Infantino presented Fatma Samoura, the new secretary-general. This meant that for the first time in more than 100 years of FIFA history, a woman was managing the operations of the world governing body - not a man, not a European, and not somebody with a background at the organization. So three birds were killed with one stone. Take that!

UEFA FIFA Kandidat Gianni Infantino (picture-alliance/dpa/L. Gillieron)

Gianni Infantino moved from UEFA to FIFA in 2016

An invitation to speak despite a FIFA ban

That particular maneuver meant that the glaring break with one of the new reforms didn't attract as much attention as it might have. Domenico Scala, the head of the independent Audit and Compliance Committee that was designed to control the FIFA Council, resigned after the FIFA Congress passed a rule giving the Council the power to sack members of such committees, thus bringing the nature of its independence into question.

UEFA didn't seem to be as concerned about its bad image as FIFA and the DFB were in 2016. The European body allowed its former president, Michel Platini, who has been banned by FIFA for a series of breaches of ethics rules, to give a speech at the September meeting in which his successor was elected. The man who surprisingly won the election, Alexander Ceferin of Slovenia, described Platini as a "charismatic leader."

Promise kept?

It was only later that Infantino revealed his cards, showing one of the things that must have helped him get elected. The Swiss-Italian officially came out in favor of increasing the number of teams at the World Cup from 32 to 48. This is something that the Asian and African federations in particular had been pushing for. Perhaps it was entirely coincidental, but these are also the federations that had originally pledged their support to Sheik Salman bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa. A decision on the proposal to expand the World Cup is to be taken in January.

This is year one of the big fresh start, which has actually turned out to be another false dawn. However, our love of football gives us reason for hope. And hope allows us to continue to believe things will improve.

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