Just a year in office, FIFA President Gianni Infantino has made his mark by expanding the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams. It has been a quiet year for the organization, although trouble is never far away.
Gianni Infantino has been travelling around the world to celebrate his first anniversary as the figurehead of FIFA, world football's oft-criticized governing body. After short visits to Qatar and South Africa, he flew to a birthday party on Thursday - and even found time to meet Robert Mugabe.
Despite the continuing criticism of FIFA, the Swiss remains in celebratory mood. His surprising electoral success on February 26 last year, which at 45 made him the youngest FIFA president since the war, was on the back of a pledge to make a clean break from the corruption scandals that dogged it under the watch of Sepp Blatter.
Before the anniversary, his press office released a 50-page glossy dossier that serves as a one-year review into his three-year term. "What has pleased me most in the past few months is to see how to ideas, intentions, and regulations have become reality in the daily life of the football administration,” it says on page 46 of the prospectus.
Infantino can indeed be satisfied that the waters are a little calmer. For over a year, no one has been arrested in the bedroom of a luxury Swiss hotel and placed in deportation detention, and no one from the current leadership has been suspended for life. However, precisely because of the almost unbelievable events of the past years the tolerance limit for "FIFA scandals" has clearly increased.
"Climate of fear”
After so many years of corruption and sheer madness at Blatter's FIFA, is the organization back on track? Not at all, say the critics. After a rocky start around the time of the congress in May 2016, Infantino did himself no favours by hiring Fatma Samoura as the general secretary. This despite her complete lack of experience in the football business. The media has so far been quiet but skeptical of Infantino's reign. Internally at FIFA there are numerous voices that speak of a "climate of fear” and describe Infantino as "the sole ruler” and "Macho”. On the record, however, hardly anyone says that.
The beginning of January saw hot debate and sharp criticism of the "mega World Cup” – but only in Europe. After promising it in his election campaign, the increase from 32 to 48 teams was duly delivered. But Infantino's greatest test is to come at the next FIFA Congress in Bahrain on May 11 this year, when the members of the independent commissions will be confirmed.
Ethics are a thorn in FIFA's side
Hans-Joachim Eckert, chairman of the Ethics Committee, and chief investigator Cornel Borbely, who fought against Infantino in the summer, are a thorn in the sides of many at FIFA. As demonstrated with Blatter and Michel Platini, they stop no one. Both Eckert and Borbely are keen to stay in office; a dismissal in Bahrain would indicate that Infantino is cherry picking the people he wants alongside him at the top.
While the president is on the road to making advances for the ‘new FIFA' and himself, the mood at headquarters in Zurich is anything but euphoric. Approximately 80 employees have left the organization since the arrival of Infantino and Insiders report great uncertainty, even among the long-term employees close to the man in charge. A year into his reign, the jury is most definitely still out.