GENEVA—FIFA president Gianni Infantino will be re-elected this week to lead a richer-than-ever soccer body with an ambition to add new and bigger competitions despite growing wariness of him in Europe.
FIFA’s wealth after the World Cup in Qatar—$4 billion in reserves to be shared among the 211 member federations and lots more to come from the expanded 104-game edition in 2026 in North America—is a big reason why Infantino has no opponent on Thursday in Rwanda for four more years in office.
Since Infantino’s first re-election in 2019, two of soccer’s biggest issues were FIFA wanting biennial World Cups and storied clubs wanting a European Super League. Both plans failed.
Infantino pushed hard for more World Cups, a prospect that would directly challenge the European Championship and Copa América and also unsettled the Olympic world.
While not publicly backing the Super League, he spoke with rebel clubs and seemed at least sympathetic to them despite the intended disruption of European soccer’s domestic structure.
The governing bodies of European and South American soccer have stopped much of Infantino’s intended empire-building. However, combining for only 65 of 211 votes means they cannot win the presidency alone.
Members that are typically more dependent on FIFA money are satisfied with Infantino, who has built a solid power base in Africa where Zurich’s influence has been clear.
All six regions will also get more places, and more FIFA money, from the first 48-team men’s World Cup in 2026. It should be the high point of Infantino’s next term in a presidency that might not yet have reached halftime.
SINCE Gianni Infantino’s previous election, FIFA organized two slick World Cups in packed stadiums on either side of a pandemic that shut down soccer for parts of 2020 and 2021, including some of its own youth tournaments.
The 2019 Women’s World Cup in France drew a global broadcast audience of more than 1 billion viewers. The 2023 edition in Australia and New Zealand will grow from 24 to 32 teams.
The 2022 World Cup in Qatar finally happened after a relentlessly problematic 12-year preparation. It ended on a high with an instant classic final of Lionel Messi winning the trophy with Argentina at the age of 35.
Infantino inherited Qatar in 2016 from the turmoil of Sepp Blatter’s last years, and ultimately went to live in Doha—tying himself completely to the World Cup host. A remarkable eve-of-tournament news conference was a polarizing event seen as a big win by Qatar and Infantino’s allies. Much of Europe, as usual, had a different view to being criticized.
Infantino and FIFA believe the World Cup in Qatar accelerated social change and was a model for other Middle East states.
Infantino’s courting of actual politics and world leaders—Donald Trump, Mohammed bin Salman and Emmanuel Macron have been regular cohorts—can disguise achievements in FIFA’s basic work.
Regulating the soccer industry has been more streamlined and progressive, such as protecting players’ maternity rights and trying to ensure small clubs get their entitled share of hundreds of millions of dollars from transfer fees of players they nurtured.
FIFA embraces technology to help referees and a talent identification program aims to help each member federation find and develop young players.
“IT’S your money, not the money of the FIFA president,” Gianni Infantino promised voters at his hard-fought first election win in 2016.
FIFA money has flowed from Zurich ever since. Member federations who each got $250,000 per year plus a pre-election World Cup bonus now will get at least $8 million from 2023-26.
FIFA outperformed its conservative budget to post $7.6 billion income for 2019-22, helped by late and little publicized World Cup sponsor deals from YouTube and tourism authorities in Las Vegas and Saudi Arabia.
The budgeted $11 billion income through 2026 has been boosted by having many high-revenue National Football League stadiums for the men’s World Cup and by creating separate deals for the women’s tournament.
Another political and financial win was persuading American federal prosecutors to pay restitution of more than $200 million forfeited by corrupt officials and marketing agencies in the sweeping investigation that helped bring Infantino to power.
FIFA shared that money with the soccer bodies for North and South America, CONCACAF in Miami and CONMEBOL in Paraguay.
A 24-TEAM men’s Club World Cup in China in June 2021 was lost to the coronavirus pandemic. Launching a women’s Club World Cup is a long-time target but remains just an idea.
A key soccer document—the FIFA-managed International Match Calendar, which mandates when clubs must release players to national teams—was long flagged as a priority to renew before it expires in 2024.
The process is complex and involves confederations, clubs, leagues and player unions—all with self-interested views on playing more or fewer games. FIFA co-mingled it with the losing battle for biennial World Cups. The calendar was announced Tuesday despite some stakeholders feeling like they had less access to FIFA than a celebrity chef friend of Infantino’s.
FIFA has variously had close working relationships in Infantino’s presidency with Russia and China, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. So, too, have clubs in the Premier League.
Infantino’s eagerness to work with those countries and heads of state has exposed FIFA to claims from rights groups of enabling “sportswashing.”
In his first term, FIFA mandated human rights assessments of World Cup bidders and created an independent advisory board. That board was shut down in 2021. Human rights advice was taken in-house with a lower profile as Infantino’s ties with Saudi soccer grew. A Saudi-led bid to host the 2030 or 2034 World Cup is expected.
FIFA also shut down its once-vaunted Stakeholders’ Committee, the gathering for clubs, leagues and player unions to help shape decisions on competitions and rules affecting them.
FIFA consultation process was unclear in proposals like biennial World Cups, launching a 32-team men’s Club World Cup in 2025, and changing the 2026 World Cup format despite it being previously agreed on six years ago.
Infantino’s presidential term limit was also opaque. He was part of a FIFA modernizing panel in 2015 that said 12 years should be the maximum for future presidents. Once in office, as a hands-on executive president contrary to the panel’s proposal for a figurehead leader, his term limit was changed. With no public disclosure of the process, a decision in Moscow meant his first three years in office through 2019 do not count.
Infantino is now eligible to have 15 years at the top of world soccer through 2031.
Image credits: AP