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Exclusive: FIFA president Gianni Infantino talks about how he's trying to clean up football

FIFA president Gianni Infantino tells Gab Marcotti about his hopes that the 2018 and 2022 World Cups change negative perceptions of Russia and Qatar.

Few organizations have been as tarnished by the avalanche of dreck and downright criminality as FIFA, which has become the sport's most (in)famous four-letter word.

That stench of corruption hung heavy in the air when Gianni Infantino was elected FIFA president on Feb. 26, 2016 and it's still there today. Indeed, cleaning up football was a theme that ran throughout an hour-long conversation I had with Infantino at FIFA headquarters in Zurich last month.

"It has been the most difficult part of my presidency: persuading public opinion to change their perception of FIFA," Infantino said. "After all, I was a harsh critic of FIFA before taking the job. What was a bit surprising for me is that, until the 25th of February 2016, the day before the election when I was still UEFA general secretary, for me, as with any other human being, the presumption of innocence applied.

"The day after I become FIFA president and, suddenly, because I'm FIFA president -- even though I'm the same Gianni Infantino, working with the same people, in the same way, with the same football partners, the same business partners -- suddenly there's no more presumption of innocence. There's a presumption of guilt. Because you are FIFA, you must be guilty of something.

"I said we would show with facts, with actions, with good governance, with transparency, with reform that this is a new FIFA," Infantino added. "And we are showing it. But getting this message across remains one of the major difficulties I have encountered."

That's not a surprise. Even if FIFA wasn't such a tarnished brand, the sort of corporate governance / transparency changes that the organisation's reform committee -- of which Infantino was a member -- put together and which were approved just prior to his election aren't the sort that yield immediate dividends. Disclosure requirements, external audits and public tenders might make it more difficult for someone in a scarcely scrutinised footballing backwater to embezzle a chunk of a FIFA grant, but they do not draw headlines. Indictments of football officials, even when very loosely linked to FIFA business, do make it into the news.

But the structural problem lies with FIFA itself. On the one hand, it makes more than 90 percent of its revenue from a single event: the World Cup. On the other, unlike a normal corporation, FIFA's shareholders are the 211 member nations, each of which has an equal vote in deciding its leadership, regardless of how much they contribute to the bottom line. That is why the Cayman Islands and San Marino wields as much power as Germany and Brazil when it comes to choosing the FIFA president.

What's more, while some nations are relatively free and open democracies, many are not. The Economist releases its Democracy Index each year, attempting to put a numerical value on the strength of democratic culture in countries around the world. It's an imperfect and debatable list, which ranks 167 countries (FIFA has 211 members). Nevertheless, it's striking to note that only 19 rank as full democracies, while more than half are classified as either "Hybrid Regimes" or "Authoritarian," with more than a quarter falling in the latter category.

Expecting FAs in some of these member states to operate to a far higher standard of integrity, democratic principle and disinterested independence than the countries (and cultures) to which they belong is utopian. It also routinely makes a mockery of one of FIFA's central tenets, that FAs must operate without political interference.

"The day after I become FIFA president ... and suddenly there's a presumption of guilt," said Gianni Infantino about the challenges of being FIFA president.

Put whatever opinions you may have of Infantino to one side for a minute. Imagine that the smartest, most honest person in the world was elected to the FIFA presidency. How would he or she run the organization and rebuild trust?

For most of the past two decades, under Infantino's predecessor, Sepp Blatter, a de facto solution was reached. The FIFA president devolved a lot of power and responsibility to the six confederations, whose heads -- regional power brokers -- backed him in exchange for two things: a slice of FIFA revenues trickling down in the form of grants for football development and very little oversight over how that money was spent.

When malfeasance emerged, Blatter's defence was the same: He couldn't be held responsible for what happens in each confederation, which was where much of the bribery and embezzlement took place, among people who aren't really FIFA guys; they are just officials who were voted on to its executive committee by the six confederations.

In other words, if the voters in each confederation democratically elect a bunch of crooks, how can it be the FIFA president's fault? You don't blame the president of the United States if voters elect thieves to Congress, who then solicit bribes back in their home states, do you?

Clearly, it's an excuse ... but also reality.

It's compounded by another factor that makes FIFA different from the president/congressman scenario. If you expose a crooked congressman -- or raise enough doubts -- he might get voted out of office. In many footballing nations, FA heads aren't democratically elected. They're often appointed with the blessing of whoever is in charge -- in authoritarian nations -- or chosen via backroom deals and bloc-votes driven by special interests.

Take one of FIFA's darkest, most embarrassing moments in recent history: the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. Of the 24 men on the FIFA Executive Committee with a vote ahead of the election, only one was a FIFA employee: Blatter, who was elected multiple times by the member FAs. Everybody else was appointed by one of the six confederations.

What sort of people did they send to represent them?

You be the judge. Eighteen of the 24 men on the FIFA Executive Committee at the time of the vote were at some point either indicted, banned, arrested or found to have approved a mega-bribe. In some parts of the world, like the Americas -- where the last three CONCACAF presidents and the last three CONMEBOL presidents were all indicted -- corruption appears to be systemic.

Everybody left standing after the rash of indictments and bans seemed to agree that the corruption had to stop and the confederations talked a good game. FIFA's new integrity and eligibility checks, approved in February 2016 and enacted in stages since then, are designed to filter out not only dubious individuals, but also those who have evident conflicts of interest.

"We've put in place mechanisms to control who comes into this building," Infantino said. "It's the first time we've had these eligibility and integrity checks for all FIFA committees. And I can tell you that about 20 percent of those who have been put forward for committees have not been admitted."

Let that sink in for a minute: The confederations know that there are tougher eligibility checks, yet one out of every five people they hand-picked to represent them on FIFA committees failed the integrity test.

FIFA council members also have to disclose any related financial or business interest that might pose a (perceived or real) conflict of interest, which is something that, incredibly, did not happen in the past.

"Does this give us a 100 percent assurance that nothing improper is happening?" Infantino said. "No. But it's a step in the right direction. And we have far greater oversight. We make sure what happened in the past cannot happen any more. The risk of money being misappropriated by any member of the FIFA body is almost entirely excluded."

You hear Infantino talk a lot about money and, indeed, he campaigned on increasing FIFA revenues and redistributing them to member FAs -- or, as he puts it, "investing them in football" -- rather than letting them pile up in Zurich as cash reserves.

"The amount FIFA gives out has gone up nearly four times [since the last four-year cycle under Blatter]," he said. "It used to be around €400m [per four-year cycle]; now it's over €1.4 billion that we invest on football projects worldwide. It's the right thing to do."

It's also one way you can maintain support, as a significant chunk of the world's FAs rely on FIFA money. It's how Blatter built his power base. Too often, though, the cash would be paid out with little oversight or accountability, which is how FA officials in some nations got rich (or richer).

Now Infantino wants to hand out even more cash.

"We don't just send money; we watch closely over how it's spent ... if somebody tells us he's going to build a football pitch, we make sure it doesn't end up being a new swimming pool in his back garden," he said. "There is far more money available to invest, but there is far more accountability, too. Every member nation will be centrally audited by external independent auditors next year and they will make sure the money is spent correctly. It's a condition to receive it. And if there are still people out there who believe they can misappropriate FIFA money for their personal benefit, we will catch them and punish them."

The process to apply for FIFA grants is far more complex than before, so much so that FIFA have hired consultants to help FAs do the paperwork. In the same vein, many projects are increasingly about grassroots as well as elite football, where a little investment can go a long way.

"For example, we had one federation in an African country that wants to bring football into every single school," Infantino said. "There are 20,000 schools in the country and the plan is to provide each with three new footballs. That's 60,000 balls. If we can use our influence and negotiating power to find a supplier that can provide balls at, say, $10 each, then it will cost $600,000. That's how we can help and make sure the money is invested well."

Of course, to redistribute money, the money has to be there in the first place. Infantino's ability to increase revenues at UEFA, which increased from €6.4 billion in the 2009-12 cycle to €10.1 billion in the 2013-16 cycle, largely driven by commercial and broadcast deals, was a big selling point for voters. At FIFA, though, he faces two challenges that weren't there in his previous job: He must rehabilitate the organisation's reputation and attract more sponsors who might be wary of the scandals. Cleaning up FIFA's image isn't just about integrity; it's also good for business.

FIFA president Gianni Infantino discusses the proposed transfer window changes and addresses inequalities within leagues with ESPN FC's Gab Marcotti.

Less good for business are the World Cups, in Russia and Qatar, which Infantino inherited. It's not only the cloud under which they were awarded -- eight of the nine bidding nations were reprimanded to varying degrees in the Garcia report -- it's also the fact that neither is an obvious money-spinner. Qatar might be rich, but it's a tiny nation. Russia is massive but, outside three or four cities, it's not exactly a popular tourist destination.

Not since Argentina in 1978, which was under a military dictatorship, has the World Cup been held in such polarising nations, with questionable records on human rights and civil freedoms. Throw in political issues -- Qatar is dealing with a blockade by its neighbours and Russia is subject to international sanctions following the invasion of Crimea -- and there's a whole raft of challenges. 

Infantino gets a little cagey when asked about this subject.

"Both are certainly challenges, but more than challenges, they are opportunities," he said. "We've seen in the past how World Cups have changed a country or, at least, the perception that people have of that country ... These people [in Qatar and Russia] want to welcome the world and football can do miracles when it comes to that."

It's a stock answer not unlike the rhetoric Blatter used when in office. That said, Infantino is president of FIFA and FIFA committed to these two World Cups. In a realpolitik sense, all he can do is make the best of the situation.

The task ahead remains huge. Infantino can think of himself as a chief executive rather than a politician, but his is fundamentally a political position in which, to some degree, he has to rule by consensus and where he is stepping into a veritable swamp of entrenched -- and sometimes corrupt -- practices. Some of his biggest backers have been longtime football administrators, who swerved the 2015 FIFA scandal and seemed to operate happily for years under the previous regime.

Infantino also has his critics. They point out that he understated how much spending he did on his electoral campaign, which saw him fly all over the globe to garner support. When he replaced the heads of the Independent Ethics committee -- both of whom were appointed under Blatter -- it was seen by some as a power grab. 

And Miguel Maduro, appointed by Infantino to lead the Governance committee, was ousted after eight months in charge amid claims the FIFA president put pressure on him not to bar Vitaly Mutko from the FIFA council after he became Russia's deputy prime minister. (FIFA rules say that those who sit on the council must be politically neutral: Maduro claimed Infantino feared that banning Mutko might negatively impact Russia 2018. The irony is that it became a moot point a few months later when Mutko received a lifetime ban for his involvement in the Russian doping scandal, after which he stepped down from the Russia Football Union.)  

Few in the FIFA sphere admit to longing for the days of Blatter. But Infantino's hands-on style, according to some, borders on the autocratic. When he met stakeholders to explore plans for a Champions League-style global club competition to replace the moribund Confederations Cup, for example, some believed it was a lecture more than a conversation.

And Reinhard Grindel, the president of the German FA and a FIFA Council member, told the New York Times last month: "We are the biggest football association and we are World Cup winners and he is talking not a word with me."

Infantino denies this, insisting he talks to everyone and he does so at length. FIFA is a big organization, drawing together disparate interests. It's normal, he says, for people to fight their corner. Besides, you can't be all things to all people. He knows that, like those before him, he will be judged in the long term.

Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.

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