Can new FIFA president Gianni Infantino create meaningful change?
ZURICH -- We have a new FIFA President. And that means one thing for certain. Sepp Blatter is not coming back, no matter if his six-year suspension is overturned.
The challenge for his successor Gianni Infantino is to end the Blatter era, which is an entirely different proposition and by no means a foregone conclusion.
It would rank somewhere between the naive and the downright stupid to believe the system of horse-trading, patronage, entrenched fiefdoms, pork-barrel politics, deals, double deals and -- as the U.S. Department of Justice investigation has showed -- outright bribery and corruption that defined the past four decades of the world's game is going to be swept away simply because there is a new man in charge.
Infantino talked a good game in his victory speech: "We will restore the image of FIFA and everyone in the world will applaud us." But for that to come to pass, a lot needs to change.
In that sense, what happened Friday morning with the passage of the reform package will be critical. It's easy -- and often justified -- to be cynical, but the measures, which include term limits, increased powers for the secretary general to effectively act as a chief executive, more roles for women, and transparency, will be a big step towards ending a certain culture -- if there is leadership from the top that wants to see change implemented.
On some level, the same problem existed under Blatter. Once FIFA ran into trouble, they brought in experts and luminaries to help provide better, more honest governance. But Mark Pieth, Alexandra Wrage and Michael Garcia, to varying degrees, saw their work ignored.
Will things be different under Infantino?
Given that he sat on the committee that wrote the reforms, you hope they will be and that he'll make sure they don't just become window dressing over a tarnished organization.
Was he the best candidate of the four (once Tokyo Sexwale showed he was by far both the most entertaining speaker and the least interested in winning)?
If the benchmark is whether Infantino is the most capable of delivering, you're tempted to say yes, and not just because he helped draft and write the reforms.
Relative to Prince Ali, he has more real practical executive experience in a major footballing organization, thanks to his seven years as general secretary of UEFA.
Relative to Sheikh Salman, he's not been dogged by allegations of vote-buying and human rights violations.
And relative to Jerome Champagne, well, he's actually had a job in football these past few years and he did not spend years being employed by Blatter.
Under Infantino's stewardship, UEFA's revenues boomed, record amounts were distributed to member FAs and the organization, by and large, has not been tainted by accusations of corruption.
(Here, it's a matter of scale. There will always be critics pointing to malfeasance, whether it be Financial Fair Play or clubs like Fenerbahce and Olympiacos escaping heavier bans for domestic match-fixing. But surely debatable stuff like that pales by comparison to criminal indictments and large-scale corruption of the kind seen in Asia and the Americas. Those things simply did not happen at UEFA under his watch.)
There are also realpolitik reasons why he won this election. Whether he can navigate them will be FIFA's other big challenge, as it looks to change a decades-old culture and restore credibility.
Two points brought up today -- one by Jerome Champagne and one by Infantino -- neatly sum up two of the bigger challenges ahead.
Champagne lamented the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. He pointed out that roughly half of FIFA's 209 member associations get by on an annual budget of less than $2 million a year.
Let that sink in for a second. An entire football association -- while some are small, they are not all the size of Monserrat with its population of 5000 -- being run on less than what a backup defender on a bad Premier League team makes in a season. That means less than two million bucks a year for travel, coaching, administration, women's and youth football. And guess what? For many of them, a big chunk of that total -- as much as 50 percent -- comes from FIFA development funds.
That was at the heart of the patronage system that allowed Blatter to stay in charge for so long. But it also afforded the little guys -- so long ignored by Europe and South America -- a chance to play and grow the game.
Champagne's fear was that, as money increasingly flows into the very highest echelons of football, the imbalance will become unsustainable. Or, as said the FA chief cited by Champagne in his speech: "If not for FIFA we would all just be sitting on our sofas watching big European clubs play football on television."
Infantino's point was that a corruption-free FIFA could grow the pie so that all benefited. His $5 million pledge to the FAs over four years was seen as Blatter-style pork barrel politics by some. Others said it might bankrupt FIFA but, in fact, he maintains there's a track record behind it.
Under Infantino, UEFA distributes far more to its member nations -- both in absolute terms and percentage-wise -- than FIFA.
Infantino believes that he can simply run FIFA better, be more clever commercially while fighting the scourge of corruption which starves FAs of funds. He said that his $5 million-over-four-year pledges to the FAs were non-negotiable, even if it meant cutting the perks and lavish spending to which many in the FIFAsphere have become accustomed.
"If FIFA make $5 billion, it should not be a problem to give out $1.2 billion, less than 25 percent back [to the FAs]" he said. "That must be the first priority, and all other costs must be secondary.
"I have professional experience doing this," he added. "I will go to our sponsors, our commercial partners, our broadcast partners and they will need to regain our trust. If we can show that we can be trusted, then the revenues will go up for everyone. I think my track record at UEFA proves that."
Those two points -- addressing the increasing gap between rich and poor and growing the game so the smaller FAs continue to receive support -- reflect the balance that Infantino and FIFA must now strike.
The European super clubs are already flexing their muscle and not just financially. One delegate told me the reluctance to back a UEFA guy came from the fear that the rest of the world would simply become a farm system for future Real Madrid or Manchester United players. The relationship between the big clubs and FIFA will likely define the next decade and Infantino will need to walk that line.
The other issue concerns money. Infantino needs to deliver on his financial pledges while also ensuring the cash gets where it needs to be (i.e., fighting graft and corruption). Where there is money -- especially public money -- there will be the risk of corruption, particularly in parts of the world where it has been rife for a long time.
Of course, you want to be cautious. What promises did Infantino's camp have to make -- and to whom -- to get elected? One-hundred and thirty-three FIFA members voted for Blatter in May. Take out the guys who are facing prison and you're still left with more than 120. A lot of those guys voted for Infantino this time.
Infantino's actions now will tell us to what degree old-style Blatter politics contributed to his victory and whether they will define how he runs the organization. Thanks to the reform package, he has the tools to at least try to take on the monumental task of effecting real change. That's what we will judge him on.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.