By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 21, 2016) US Soccer Players – American soccer people: Gianni Infantino wants your time, your respect and your attention. Are you game?
FIFA’s new president has plenty of work to do, both substantive and symbolic, in the wake of his predecessor Sepp Blatter’s chaotic, corruption-plagued exit from power. Last week, Infantino tried to turn the page in the United States. This country is simultaneously FIFA’s most tantalizing and most dangerous territory. That’s thanks to relentless commercial growth and a voracious Department of Justice investigation. Infantino sat down with two of the country’s most visible soccer journalists, Fox Soccer’s Alexi Lalas and Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl, during a US swing that apparently also included meetings with FIFA sponsors and partners.
Lalas explained the context behind his interview and his own thought process throughout the experience on his new podcast. It certainly makes for an interesting listen.
As Wahl describes, Infantino wisely made an appearance at soccer-centric Manhattan watering hole Smithfield Hall for a couple of Wednesday afternoon UEFA Champions League matches. It was an everyman sort of gesture that complemented his decision to host a staff seven-a-side tournament (albeit with a star-studded battalion of legendary ex-players) at FIFA headquarters on his first day in office. Infantino’s background and his first weeks on the job show someone adept at making personal connections across cultures and nationalities.
Infantino wants to return FIFA’s focus – or at least the outside perceptions of its focus – to the action on the field instead of well-appointed ballrooms or courtrooms. Many onlookers, particularly here in the United States, still expect the legal proceedings and smarmy revelations to continue popping up for some time to come. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that the organization’s new boss would try to signal a fresh start and a new era. Once the flush of anger at FIFA’s seemingly endemic dishonesty passes, most of us would admit it’s a laudable goal. Only by focusing on soccer will world soccer’s governing body win back everybody else, the rest of us who weren’t profiting from soccer’s political machine.
Infantino offered more insight than we’re accustomed to hearing from his immediate predecessor. Still, he wasn’t letting too much slip, showing perhaps the sort of guarded glibness you’d expect from an experienced navigator of FIFA’s byzantine bureaucracy. Significant rule changes like video replay and an extra substitution for extra time sound like done deals. He sounds open to new ideas in a way that was rare in the past. Interestingly, Infantino seemed better prepared, with more substantive answers, in a longer conversation with Wahl in New York than he did when speaking to Lalas in San Francisco earlier in the week.
Perhaps Lalas caught Infantino off guard when Lalas asked him early in their talk whether he believed “that there are still individuals or entities within FIFA that are corrupt”. His answer smacked of deflection, in contrast to the plain talk that capped the SI piece.
“By showing with facts rather than with words that I am a true football fan,” Infantino pledged to prove that he is “genuinely interested in running this organization in a transparent way, a modern way, a professional way. I expect people to judge me and my actions with the results of what I’m doing – and not with any other happenings that other people did, maybe misusing FIFA’s name in the past.”
The sport’s overlords have long appeared to look on the US with a heady mix of fascination, condescension, and distrust. All recognized the power, potential, and profitability of the game’s future here. Yet, the fearsome crusading of Attorney General Loretta Lynch and her investigators has laid low a long and growing list of powerful FIFA politicians. Infantino can’t appear to be genuflecting to North America, especially given the United States’ role in his election. However, he’s clearly seen the cost of Blatter’s hostility. At least on American soil, Infantino sounds open to allowing a larger role than the region has traditionally enjoyed.
He sold his idea of an expanded, 40-team World Cup by listing the extra spots that it would hand out to each confederacy. CONCACAF would gain “1.5” spots beyond the “3.5” it currently possesses. He also stumped for the positive effects seen in his home region with UEFA increasing the number of teams in the European Championships. The clear subtext: He wants an already-huge World Cup to be enormous.
However genial and urbane Infantino may be, many US soccer fans are approaching his rise with a transactional mindset. What’s it going to take to bring the World Cup back to these shores?
The 1994 tournament changed the sport’s US trajectory forever. Even as the generations that witnessed its power grow old and gray, lingering bitterness at the nature in which Qatar outmaneuvered the US to the capture of the 2022 edition has fueled the hunger for 2026. This country is widely perceived to be the leading contender for the next set of hosting rights. Few would disagree about the potential impact of a modern World Cup on the scene here. Infantino’s too shrewd to give away leverage at this early stage, however.
“Now with the reforms, the FIFA president doesn’t even vote any more on this, because it’s the Congress, it’s the 209 associations who will vote. And I’m Swiss, I have to be very neutral – double-neutral,” he said to Lalas with a grin when asked directly if he would support a US World Cup. “’26, I mean, could be in this part of the world.. Somewhere. Could be.”
That playful twist at the end is a nod to Canada and Mexico, neighbors who could yet prove to be competitors, partners or both in the race for 2026. Infantino’s only real specific was a general estimation of the finish line’s timing: The Congress will vote in or around 2020.
All three of the North American nations have announced their hosting ambitions. All three have solid credentials, and allure. Infantino sounds ready to let the chips fall in whatever way benefits FIFA, aka “the good of the game,” if he’s speaking on record.
“I think probably these three countries could organize a World Cup on their own. Having said that, I’m very open to considering joint bids,” he told Wahl. “For me the World Cup is such a huge event that the more people you can include in the dream, in the organization, the better.”
That’s a marked turn from FIFA’s previously expressed wariness of messy marriages like the one between Japan and Korea for 2002. In tandem with intentions of a 40-team event, it hints at a tournament of size and span.
Imagine a month-plus of games, drama, culture, and worldwide attention from Cancun to Vancouver. Or, picture the vicious bidding war that will unfold between the NAFTA nations who’ve grown so accustomed to cooperating for collective profit on soccer’s growth in the region. Either way, the process that may prove to be the centerpiece of Infantino’s time in office is already shaping up as a long, wild, and bumpy ride. That’s one FIFA tradition that shows no signs of changing.
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