Forget bidding contests and presidential elections (especially them), the real action at one of the football family’s annual gatherings is increasingly found the day before a FIFA Congress at the delegates’ football tournament.
This was especially the case this week in Kigali, where FIFA’s 211 member associations came together to clap their approval for four more years of Gianni Infantino, get an update on how much money the organisation is making, and watch four-time Serie A champ and Champions League winner Zvonimir Boban and 1999 Scottish Third Division champion Ian Maxwell run the show for Europe’s over-45s team.
OK, that’s not strictly true, as most people present on Wednesday were not there to see European football’s governing body UEFA’s chief of football combine with the Scottish Football Association’s chief executive. No, they were there for the presidential powerplay on the other half of the pitch: FIFA boss Infantino versus Rwandan president Paul Kagame.
The big salary, luxury travel and opportunity to embrace world leaders clearly appeals to Infantino, but you sense his favourite perk of the FIFA job is the No 9 shirt for the company team.
When you watch the 52-year-old Swiss-Italian play, however, you are reminded of the late Brian Glover’s performance in the 1969 film Kes but without the end product.
If this cultural reference means nothing to you, take a few minutes to find and watch the clip online. You will not regret it. As for Infantino, we counted five touches in total, including a foul throw.
Nobody was going to point out that the emperor was naked on this day, though, as Kagame, playing on the African Football Confederation (CAF) team, was even worse. Tall and slim, the 65-year-old looks like someone who plays a couple games of badminton a week but “PK” cannot play football at all.
But the wonderful thing about FIFA delegates football is it is sprinkled with ringers, or “Legends” as Infantino insists on calling them.
So, while the comedy in the FIFA v CAF clash was provided by their non-contributing captains, the drama came from World Cup-winning duo Cafu and Youri Djorkaeff for FIFA, and Bolton and Nigeria maestro Jay Jay Okocha for CAF. The African confederation beat the international federation 3-2, with Jay Jay, so good they named him twice, scoring a hat-trick, while Cafu notched twice.
Sadly, the entertainment was cut short, as lightning stopped play, depriving the crowd of the chance to see Okocha make mugs of more presidents, general secretaries and chief executives.
So good, they named him twice.
He’s still got it, btw. pic.twitter.com/OjXUdoYi1X
— Matt Slater (@mjshrimper) March 15, 2023
Rwanda answer the Pele stadium call… just 207 nations to go
Apart from Okocha’s snake hips, the main headline from the tournament was that it was scheduled to take place at the Nyamirambo Regional Stadium but was held at the Kigali Pele Stadium instead.
A late venue change? No, it was a late name change.
Speaking at Pele’s funeral in January, Infantino asked every country to name at least one stadium after the Brazilian great.
Brazil, Cape Verde, Colombia and now Rwanda have answered the call. Just 207 nations to go.
Star man Ceferin was missed…on the pitch
While Infantino was marginally better than Kagame, the president of the tournament award goes to Victor Montagliani, the head honcho of CONCACAF, the confederation that represents countries in North and Central America.
A decent amateur in his day, the Canadian businessman turned football administrator still has the proverbial good touch for a big man.
He might not have won this accolade, though, if UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin had turned up. As viewers of the Apple TV+ documentary about the European Super League will know, as well as being a fine reenactor, the 55-year-old Slovenian can play a bit.
Ceferin, however, takes a less is more approach to FIFA events, in that he tries to spend as little time as possible at them. Having attended a meeting of the FIFA Council, the governing body’s main decision-making body, on Tuesday, he flew off to Ugandan capital Kampala with a German TV news crew to open a football facility partly funded by UEFA.
And in the contest that really matters, FIFA v UEFA, that was as good as Okocha’s hat-trick.
UEFA candidates try speed-dating
Ceferin was far from being the only FIFA Congress delegate unable to make the match, though. Many of them were too busy back at their hotels match-making.
No, not like that! These unions were political, not romantic.
The busiest hotel for this type of thing was the Radisson Blu, where most of the European delegates were staying, as it is UEFA’s congress in Lisbon next month and there is much to decide.
Ceferin is actually up for re-election but he should be OK as he is running unopposed. Less secure are the 11 candidates chasing seven spots on the executive committee.
Four of those candidates are incumbents, which tends to help, so it is probably more like seven chasing three spots. The consensus is that new French Football Federation chief Philippe Diallo should be good for one of those, which changes the equation to six into two.
Scottish Football Association president Rod Petrie is one of the hopeful half dozen, as is Norway’s Lise Klaveness. Both have strong CVs but may find themselves squeezed out by football’s habit of seeing people as representatives of a bloc, language group or region, as opposed to individuals with great talents and expertise to offer.
But they are in the hat, so they have a chance.
Another live contest is the two-horse race between English FA chair Debbie Hewitt and Northern Irish FA president David Martin for the vice-presidency position reserved for the British FAs on the FIFA Council.
Martin is the incumbent but he basically inherited the position when Hewitt’s predecessor Greg Clarke was forced to resign after a car-crash performance before a committee of British politicians in 2020. It was an expensive mistake, as Clarke had to quit the FIFA gig and its $250,000 (£205,000) salary.
Martin has managed to avoid saying anything daft in the two years he has the role but he has perhaps played it too safe and been too inconspicuous. Hewitt, the FA’s first female boss, would be the first female vice-president at FIFA. She has a strong track record in business and a soft spot for Notts County, of which we approve.
All of these candidates, however, were speed-dating like crazy in Rwanda this week. The aim of the game was to meet as many of UEFA’s 55 member associations as possible, tell them something memorable about yourself and promise them a good time. That’s a lot of frogs to kiss. We wish all of them every happiness.
Russia and Sorokin off to Asia?
Also in the Radisson Blu was Russian football administrator Alexey Sorokin, although this may have been his last stay in a “European” hotel at a FIFA gig.
Because Russia, as you may have read, has managed to upset the rest of Europe and its football teams are banned from international competition. As a result, the Russian Football Union has let it be known that it is considering a move to the Asian Football Confederation.
While Russia’s politics will not be missed, there will be a few who will be sorry to see Sorokin go, as the former FIFA Council member and chief executive of Russia 2018’s organising committee has always been happy to stop and chat in hotel lobbies.
When asked what was going on with Russian football, he said, with a wry smile: “It’s complicated, like everything else to do with Russia at the moment.”
When it was pointed out to him that the situation would need to be resolved soon, as the European qualifiers for the 2026 World Cup start in March, Sorokin shot back: “Or November in Asia.”
Klaveness’ deal to avoid repeat of Doha fireworks
Thursday was Congress day and there were two big questions hanging over the proceedings: one, would every member association actually clap when it was time to elect Infantino by acclamation; and two, who would jump up to tell Norway’s Klaveness that this was neither the time nor the place to be talking about human rights in Qatar, or anywhere else, again.
Because one of the big stories coming into the week in Kigali was the Norwegian FA’s success in getting an actual debate added to the agenda, with the topic being FIFA’s responsibilities to the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who built the airport, hotels, roads and stadiums required for the “best ever” World Cup in Qatar last year.
Klaveness first came to prominence in global football circles by bravely standing up at the last year’s congress in Doha to talk about this subject before the tournament.
Her intervention, which was widely praised by human-rights experts, went down like a fart in a lift at congress, though, with Honduran FA general secretary Jose Ernesto Mejia doing the “wrong time, wrong place” honours and Hassan Al-Thawadi, the boss of Qatar 2022’s organising committee, telling her to pipe down and “educate” herself.
Klaveness is not one to be pushed around, though, which is why she arrived at congress with the largest press entourage in Kigali.
But there was to be no repeat of Doha’s fireworks, as FIFA, in true FIFA fashion, had done a deal with her to avoid any such nastiness on Infantino’s big day.
So, instead of her taking to the stage to berate the governing body for failing to ensure that families of workers who died in Qatar are compensated, she watched a video of Gibraltar FA president Michael Llamas promising an “assessment” of Qatar 2022’s legacy and what lessons can be drawn from the World Cup in terms of FIFA’s role in being a catalyst for progress.
If this sounds a bit weak, it does not have to be. Llamas is the chair of FIFA’s sub-committee for human rights and social responsibility and Gibraltar’s attorney-general. He made it clear in his address that he thought there was a prima facie case for believing FIFA could and should do more.
The devil, as always, will now be in the detail and the delivery. Questions about how exactly should conduct this assessment and how long it should take remain answered. But Llamas did commit to publishing it.
“It’s a judicial assessment, so that’s important and it’s what we suggested, with our partners in UEFA,” Klaveness told The Athletic.
“It should be transparent and it should involve experts. It’s a complex question and I’m happy with what Llamas said — he set the right tone. But now the work starts and FIFA must walk the walk.”
Infantino looking for partner to take on EA sports…still
For the record, Klaveness did not join the clapping of Infantino but the vast majority did. And for many of them the reason is pretty simple: he promised he would give them more money when he took over in 2016 and he has kept his word. Sevenfold.
Annual development grants for each member association have gone up from just over $250,000 to just under $2million, and they will be almost doubling in the next four-year cycle, too, as the 2026 World Cup in Canada, Mexico and the United States is going to be a 48-team, 104-game, 39-day bonanza.
But there was one passing reference to a significant amount of money that Infantino did leave on the table.
Last year, FIFA decided to end its long and profitable relationship with EA Games, the manufacturer of the computer game formerly known as “FIFA” and then a number to denote that year’s edition of the game. EA was paying FIFA $180million a year for the right to use the organisation’s name and image rights in the game and offered the governing body a 10-year deal worth more than $2billion to keep doing so.
But Infantino wanted more like $250million a year and the right to sell its name and branding to other games manufacturers.
EA, however, called his bluff and will be rebranding the game EA Sports FC. It has done licensing deals with all the major leagues and clubs, and is confident its many players will not pine for the old name.
Infantino, on the other hand, is still looking for a partner to take on EA.
“The new FIFA game — the FIFA 25, 26, 27 and so on — will always be the best e-game for any girl or boy,” he said. “We will have news on this very soon.”
Several delegates told The Athletic that this is what he told them last year, too.
(Top photo: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)
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