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Gianni Infantino, the president of FIFA, is a 52-year-old Swiss-Italian with dark eyebrows and an intensely round, perfectly bald head, like a soccer ball that had a dream of becoming an accountant. He splits his time between Zurich, Doha, and anywhere in the world that wants him—a stadium ribbon-cutting in Mauritania; a second-division match in England; a G-20 luncheon in Indonesia. Infantino has been a ubiquitous figure in the sport for years; before he was in charge, he enjoyed cult status as the guy who pulled names out of a box to determine the matchups at major tournaments. At last year’s men’s World Cup, TV cameras cut to his seats in the V.V.I.P. section so often it seemed as if they were under a contractual obligation to do so. Which, it turned out, they were.

But one morning last November, Infantino woke up and felt like an entirely new man.

“Today I feel Qatari,” he announced at a press conference in Doha. “Today I feel Arab. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel disabled. Today I feel [like] a migrant worker.” Infantino, looking out at a room of journalists from behind an array of sponsored sports drinks, was none of those things, he helpfully clarified. But as a child in Switzerland, he had been bullied for his red hair and freckles. “Plus, I was Italian,” he said, “so imagine.”

Fed up with criticism of the host nation’s labor record, infuriated by the desire of some national teams to wear armbands asserting their support for LGBTQ equality, and genuinely angry that actual discussions of human rights were overshadowing FIFA’s broad platitudes about human rights, he delivered an hour-long apologia for autocracy. He railed against “what we Europeans have been doing the last 3,000 years.” He endorsed a future World Cup in North Korea. And he praised the good soccer was doing for women’s rights in Iran, where the regime was at that moment violently suppressing protests for women’s rights.

Infantino’s remarks drew swift condemnation. Activists called his comments “crass” and dismissive—an “insult” to the lives of workers. In an on-air response that went viral, Melissa Reddy, a Sky Sports reporter, argued that the speech offered a glimpse of soccer’s new reality. “This will be the World Cup that really underpins just how dirty the game is,” she said.

But there was one thing missing in the criticism of Infantino and his World Cup: meaningful opposition. None of FIFA’s 211 member federations called for Infantino to step down, and no one dared suggest that FIFA could do better. The organization will choose its next president this week in Rwanda—and Infantino is running unopposed.

Infantino is international soccer governance personified—a polyglot lawyer who was raised in the same Swiss valley as FIFA’s previous leader, groomed at the country’s finishing school for sports bureaucrats, and picked to lead the organization after a scandal that toppled seemingly everyone else. Ushered into office as a reformer, Infantino has become an ambassador for the sport’s excesses, and an apologist for some of the world’s worst actors, even as he couches the smallest of pronouncements in the gauziest of ideals. Vladimir Putin awarded him the Order of Friendship. Donald Trump invited him to the Oval Office. Mohammed bin Salman, intent on bringing a World Cup to Neom, is a constant presence at his side. To those figures, and many more, Infantino is more than just a man in a monogrammed suit who is seemingly always holding a ball; soccer’s unique place in geopolitics as a magnet for wealth and a laundromat for reputations have made him a global leader in his own right.

Infantino’s staying power is rooted in the politics of FIFA. The sport’s governing body is sprawling and undemocratic, with more than a few George Santoses for good measure. It boasts more members than the UN, and dispenses more platitudes than Davos (where, incidentally, Infantino spoke in January—about the bright new future FIFA is building for migrant-workers in Qatar). The best men’s teams are in Europe. Many of the best players are from South America. A quarter of the votes are in Africa. The money, increasingly, comes from Asia and North America. Montserrat (population: 5,440) has the same representation as China (population: more). Infantino has kept these disparate federations happy—or at least at bay—by redistributing money to people who need it and legitimacy to people who crave it. But Infantino’s FIFA is trapped in a very old tension—between soccer’s promise as a vehicle for peace, and its reality as an instrument of power.

Infantino’s rise was made possible by the organization’s spectacular fall. A middling athlete himself (the tape does not lie) Infantino gravitated instead to the machinery of the sport. By age 10, he was organizing his own tournaments. By 18, he was president of his local club. Eventually, he ended up at the International Centre for Sports Studies, an institution created in a partnership with a local university to serve as a think-tank and training ground for soccer administrators at FIFA, headquartered just down the road in Zurich.

FIFA moved to Switzerland in 1932 because of its neutrality but stayed there, in part, because of its laws. The Alpine nation is to the world of sports what Las Vegas is to gambling and Silicon Valley is to bullshit—it provides the industry’s developmental infrastructure, and in return employs much of the talent. Sports bureaucracy is a billion-dollar business in the country, and the national and local governments have gone to great lengths to keep it that way. Lausanne, which is home to the International Olympic Committee (on which Infantino also serves) and more than 50 other athletic organizations, offers free rent and office space to sports officials. The Swiss exempt sports federations from most taxes, require little in the way of transparency, and for a long time, barred prosecutors from investigating any athletics federation unless that organization specifically asked them to. Until 2022, it was not just legal for a private company in Switzerland to pay bribes, it was literally tax-deductible.

Over the last half-century, thanks to this nurturing climate and the booming sponsorship, licensing, and broadcast deals, FIFA’s revenues have exploded. It brought in more than $7.5 billion over the last four years and distributes billions of dollars back to its 211 national soccer associations (which include places such as Scotland and Puerto Rico that do not otherwise have political independence) in the form of one-size-fits-all payments for every nation, and special development programs to pay for new facilities and programs for federations that otherwise lack the resources. This system proved enormously popular for the organization’s rank-and-file, genuinely did a lot of good, and built an unbreakable coalition for FIFA’s leaders. Only three men have been elected president since 1974.

But as the journalist David Conn detailed in his 2017 book, The Fall of the House of FIFA, the sport’s guardrails didn’t expand along with its finances. As money poured into FIFA from corporate partners, officials found ways to enrich themselves. The embodiment of soccer’s golden age of corruption was a guy named Chuck Blazer, a hustler from Queens who looked like Santa Claus, claimed to have invented the smiley face, and kept a $6,000-a-month apartment in Trump Tower solely for the use of his cats. In another life, Blazer would have been just another outer-borough oddball. But because he’d gotten involved in the sport’s governance in the 1980s, at a time when few of his compatriots cared, he’d risen, by 1996, to become not just a check-cashing powerbroker for the regional confederation that includes North and Central America and the Caribbean (known as CONCACAF), but also a member of FIFA’s executive committee—the select group of people who decided, at the time, who got to host the World Cup.

On his blog, “Travels with Chuck Blazer and his Friends,” he documented his visits with dignitaries such as Vladimir Putin (who later sent Blazer vacation photos of his own with the request that they be featured on the blog, which is what prompted Blazer to append “and his Friends” to the name) and Nelson Mandela (who once flew with Blazer on a private jet). The sport’s popularity made it an increasingly attractive vehicle for world leaders in their quest for soft power and prestige. But the path to hosting the most-watched event in the world went through guys like Blazer, who didn’t file tax returns for years and spent his free time day-trading in his condo.

FIFA’s ethics issues were hardly a secret. A reporter once stood up at a press conference to ask its president of 17 years, Sepp Blatter, if he’d ever taken a bribe. (The answer was no, although he later admitted that he was aware a colleague had taken bribes, while noting that “back then” such payments were legal in Switzerland.) In 2011, the late American soccer journalist Grant Wahl ran for president against Blatter, promising to release “every internal document to the public so we could find out how clean or unclean FIFA really is.” But members of FIFA, whose new $250 million headquarters extended five stories underground in a neighborhood known as “Dividend Hill,” were more averse to sunlight; Blatter was re-elected unanimously.

Then in 2015, the FBI and Swiss authorities raided a hotel in Zurich where FIFA leaders were staying, arrested seven high-ranking soccer officials, and brought a years-long investigation out into the open. Prosecutors uncovered literal envelopes stuffed with cash and kickbacks to offshore accounts. There were allegations of vote-buying in connection with every men’s World Cup bidding process between 1998 and 2022—culminating in last year’s tournament in Qatar. (Although the Feds have accused Qatar of buying votes, the Gulf state has long denied wrongdoing and no one has been charged with paying those bribes.) More than two dozen individuals have since been convicted or pleaded guilty as part of the probe. The heads of six different continental confederations were temporarily or permanently banned from the sport. Blazer, who wore a wire for the feds and died in 2017, pled guilty to 10 counts of racketeering, money laundering, wire fraud, and tax evasion, and admitted to twice taking bribes in exchange for his World Cup vote. Blatter, incredibly, was unanimously re-elected again two days after the raid, but eventually resigned in disgrace.

Infantino pitched himself, in part, as a chance to turn the page. As secretary general of soccer’s European governing body, UEFA, he had responded to the growing power of oligarchs and nation-states in that continent’s club soccer competitions by enacting new rules that limited—at least on paper—how much money new owners from places like Abu Dhabi and Qatar could invest in their clubs. Infantino promised to “restore the image of FIFA” while supporting a host of good-government rules, such as salary transparency, independent audits, and the replacement of Blazer’s corrupt and almost exclusively male executive committee with an expanded governing council. By contrast, his top rival, a member of the ruling family of Bahrain, had been linked to a brutal crackdown of pro-democracy demonstrations. (He has “categorically denied” any involvement.)

“There was this quiet confidence that, given that he came from UEFA—far from a perfect institution, but perhaps amongst the football association configurations, the one that was particularly susceptible to public pressure—that things may actually change,” says Mustafa Qadri, CEO of the UK-based human rights organization Equidem. “He said all the right things.”

But the core of Infantino’s appeal teased a conflict that has defined his tenure: He promised to bring in even more money than Blatter—all while casting that work as a form of world-changing humanitarianism. In his final speech before the vote, Infantino began with the story of his trip to Robben Island. There, at the Cape Town prison that once housed Mandela, he saw “what football has brought…to people who had no hope, who had no life, who had no vision anymore.” The problem was not that soccer had been led astray by its obsession with profits; it was that some of those profits had gone astray. “The money of FIFA,” he said, “is your money.”

After Infantino took office, some observers began to wonder how much had really changed. In 2011, in an attempt to calm fears about the organization’s management, Blatter had brought in a Swiss law professor named Mark Pieth to recommend changes to the organization’s ethics structures, and FIFA eventually implemented some of the proposals he and others had pushed for. The organization imposed integrity checks and term limits, and created an independent audit committee. It was the reorganized ethics committee that arose from these efforts that banned all those continental soccer officials from the sport after the DOJ-led probe, and eventually suspended Blatter himself. But Infantino soon began to clash with FIFA’s new oversight apparatus.

Gianni Infantino kicks the ball during the FIFA Match of the Legends 2022 match on June 15, 2022 in Tsovagyugh, Armenia.

Hrachya Khachatryan/DeFodi Images/Getty

After the independent auditor set Infantino’s salary at a mere $2 million a year, the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported, Infantino was caught on tape calling it “insulting.” (He also complained about having to pay for his own dry-cleaning.) At the same time, his allies tweaked FIFA’s rules to make it easier to replace members of independent committees. One year later, in 2017, Infantino fired the head of the governance committee. Several members of the committee resigned in protest.

“On paper it looks quite good,” Pieth told me, of the state of FIFA’s reforms. “But in practice it is pathetic.” 

Infantino’s battle with FIFA’s internal watchdogs reflected not just his discomfort with their idea of oversight, but also the political alliances he was willing to make to keep the business moving. In 2017, while Infantino was warning member associations not to listen to “fake news” about their organization, FIFA’s former governance chief alleged that he’d been fired for, among other things, blocking Vitaly Mutko, the deputy prime minister of Russia, from serving on FIFA’s ruling council. Mutko, who was minister of sport while his country was running a massive doping program, would soon earn a lifetime ban from the Olympics. (Mutko has denied that there was a state-run doping program, and his personal ban was later overturned by the Court of Arbitration of Sport, another Swiss institution that serves as the ultimate judicial authority for athletics disputes.) But even if he hadn’t been involved in that scandal, he appeared to cross one of FIFA’s clearest lines: government officials aren’t supposed to hold leadership positions in FIFA, in order to protect the organization’s political neutrality. 

On the other hand, the 2018 men’s World Cup was in Russia and Mutko was leading the country’s preparations. While Infantino played no part in Russia winning its bid, he had a lot riding on a successful competition. So did Mutko’s boss, Putin, who envisioned the event as a nationalist showcase that would bolster his legitimacy at home and demand fealty from his rivals. Putin had committed huge sums of money for the tournament, and he’d directed oligarchs such as Roman Abramovich to do the same. 

Infantino, says Pieth, is “much more ruthless, much quicker in forming alliances with people” and more “systematic” than his predecessor. 

Another venture he embarked on around this time offered a glimpse into the kinds of alliances he was building. Months before the tournament kicked off in Russia, the New York Times reported, Infantino shocked FIFA colleagues by announcing he’d secured billions of dollars in funding for a splashy new international competition—but refused to say where the money would come from. A follow-up in the Financial Times filled in some of the the details: FIFA would receive $25 billion as part of the deal, and a consortium that reportedly included financial giant SoftBank and investors from Saudi Arabia, China, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States, would take an active role in managing the venture; to critics, it was as if FIFA itself was up for sale. At the same time, Infantino was pushing to double the frequency of the men’s and women’s World Cup—a move backed by MBS, the Saudi ruler, whose odds of hosting a marquee event would have improved. (Both plans fell through.)

“We have a very miserable situation—you have the anti-democratic side of the world and FIFA chumming up,” Pieth says.

The World Cup in Russia set a tone for the years that followed. The tournament went on amid the international condemnation of Russia’s crackdown on dissent and LGBTQ rights. It continued despite allegations of bribery (FIFA investigators said they could not access the Russian bid team’s computers, because they’d been destroyed, but cleared the bid committee of wrongdoing anyway). And it was played after the annexation of part of Ukraine. But Infantino, in a preview of his “I feel Arab” monologue, seemed as moved by the nationalist spectacle in Moscow as he was by his visit to Robben Island.

“We were told Russia was a violent, racist, bureaucratic country,” Infantino said after the tournament. “But we saw totally [the] opposite.” The event, Infantino added, was “the best World Cup ever.” 

FIFA’s stated desire to avoid taking political positions has always been subject to interpretation. As Conn recounts in The Fall of the House of FIFA, when CAF, the sport’s African governing body, expelled South Africa from all continental competitions in 1961 because of apartheid, the president of FIFA, who was a white Englishman, refused to do the same—arguing that doing so would violate the organization’s mandate to stick to sports. African nations ended up boycotting the 1966 World Cup entirely (after being allotted just one of 16 slots) and in 1974 voted as a bloc to elect a new president from Brazil. That uprising marked the start of FIFA’s modern era.

Sticking to sports, under Infantino’s FIFA, didn’t mean avoiding politics; it meant enabling a very specific kind of politics. When a nation-state becomes a major patron of international soccer, it gets the imprimatur of FIFA’s values in return. It’s a bit like a corporation paying the Better Business Bureau to secure an A-rating—it’s at once self-fulfilling and self-refuting.

Putin’s World Cup—for which the Russian president later rewarded Infantino with an official commendation—was a warmup for an even more brazen spectacle four years later: the Qatar World Cup. Like Russia, the Gulf State had won the rights to the tournament long before Infantino took office, after a vote in which many of the participants were later banned from the sport. In that sense, he was merely playing the hand he’d been dealt. But Infantino went to great lengths to turn the event into what Qatar’s leaders always wanted it to be: a parable of soccer’s power, and a story of national growth—what Infantino would also call “the best World Cup ever.” The critics of these regimes were playing politics; their defenders, such as Infantino, were merely unifying the world through sports.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and FIFA President Gianni Infantino watch the 2018 FIFA World Cup opening ceremony.

Alexei Druzhinin /Sputnik/AP

In 2022, as preparations for the World Cup accelerated, Infantino was invited to speak at the Milken Institute. There, at the Santa Monica think-tank founded to rehabilitate the image of the junk-bond king of the 1980s, Infantino launched a spirited defense of FIFA’s work in Qatar. Infantino said that the conditions in the country had given workers “dignity and pride,” and that FIFA was leaving a positive legacy behind. This was a common refrain—the idea that with the soccer world’s help, the nation had modernized its laws and improved conditions for laborers over the last decade. And to some degree, it actually has: In 2020, Qatar took steps to abolish, or at least pare back, its kafala system, which human-rights campaigners had described as “modern slavery.” Kafala is used throughout the Gulf, but only the nation hosting the World Cup had faced so much outside pressure to change its ways.

But FIFA hadn’t achieved that of its own initiative, and Qatar hadn’t acquiesced without receiving something valuable in return. FIFA had dragged its feet at every step while activists and advocacy groups demanded more, and it has never stopped running interference for the government. Infantino downplayed the number of migrant workers who had died in Qatar since the bid was awarded. The Guardian reported 6,500 deaths, by combing government records. Infantino insisted that only three (3) occurred at actual stadium sites. And he has balked at the demand from human rights groups to use some of the tournament profits—which would ultimately produce $1 billion more than expected—to directly compensate the families of migrant workers involved in construction projects. FIFA will instead, eventually, fund what Infantino referred to at Davos as a “labour excellence hub.”

“We always knew that there would be an uphill battle to get Gianni and his leadership to genuinely address the human rights concerns around Qatar,” says Qadri, whose organization works with migrant workers in the nation to document their conditions and obtain remuneration. “But I think it’s very clear now that on the eve of his likely re-election, that he’s absolutely failed.”

In his address in California, Infantino, the politician, reminded his audience—and his constituents—what all of these efforts were really about.

“With the revenues we make from this event,” he boasted, “we finance football, or soccer, globally, for four years.”

To many of the world’s soccer associations, Infantino is, if not exactly beloved, more than satisfactory. Wealthier associations, while not reliant on FIFA’s money, are wary of falling out of favor. US Soccer helped give Infantino his narrow majority in 2016, as Pieth notes, at a time when the US was lobbying for its own World Cup. FIFA is not the G-20. Most of its members aren’t particularly interested in political or cultural lectures from the countries that colonized the globe, and whose club soccer leagues continue to hoover up so much of the sport’s talent and wealth. The majority of its national associations depend on checks from FIFA to sustain their operations. Infantino is a lock for a third term not because he’s disrupted this way of doing business, but because he hasn’t.

“In some ways the election of Infantino is a continuation of world football’s men in little gray suits continuing to look after the money,” says Jean Williams, a soccer historian who is currently a visiting professor at the University of Reading.

“Given that the corruption scandals were so excessive in terms of the sorts of things that they showed FIFA officials doing,” she added, “what’s been really interesting under Infantino is that actually FIFA has not modified its commercial ambitions. They’ve gone stratospheric. His mandate for election was that he was going to earn more money than they ever had earned before. And guess what? He’s just done that out in Qatar.”

In some ways, the role of money at FIFA has come out of the shadows and is out in the open, from the days of grifters like Blazer running a racket on TV rights, to nation-states and big banks sloshing their power around for everyone to see. MBS has reportedly offered to build stadiums in Egypt and Greece if they agree to split hosting duties with his country in 2030. (Adding co-hosts on two other continents, like spreading contracts for a fighter jet amongst dozens of congressional districts, could help get him buy-in from FIFA’s 211 voters). There are no delusions about what kind of returns he’d want on that investment.

“You can discuss whether you can call it corruption when Qatar invests $200 billion in a successful World Cup with all the logistics it requires, or whether it is just football as an asset of national development,” says Jens Sejer Andersen, a Danish journalist and founder of the nonprofit Play the Game, which advocates for transparency in sports governance. But the pull of that kind of money has a similar effect, he says: “It creates a kind of short-circuiting of the rational and democratically based decision-making that is provided for in the statutes of FIFA.”

When a nonprofit starts acting like a bank instead, it loses the plot. “FIFA is a two-headed organization,” Williams says. “It and Infantino thinks that it’s there to make money. But actually what they ought to be doing is they ought to be the governing body of world football and developing football across the world.”

And there is a difference. At Infantino’s infamous press conference in Doha, a journalist asked Infantino about a demographic he had omitted from his initial declaration of empathy.

“You’re right, I’m sorry,” Infantino said, holding up his hand as if about to take an oath. “I feel like a woman.”

Infantino has in many respects maintained the status quo of treating women’s soccer less like an equal partner and more like an underfunded afterthought. Williams notes that FIFA allocated $440 million in prize money for the men’s World Cup. By contrast, it has promised only to pay out at least $60 million to the teams competing in this year’s women’s World Cup. “The gap between male and female pay is actually accelerating,” Williams says. Infantino may say “things that appear to be progressive, but actually, he’s accelerating the pay differential between men’s football and women’s football.”

In June, the women’s World Cup will kick off in Australia and New Zealand. Infantino has promoted the event as a chance for FIFA to feel good about itself, and the growth of the women’s game. A record 32 teams will compete, including eight first-time participants. The field of contenders has perhaps never been deeper. Half a million tickets have already been sold.

As Williams has written, FIFA’s feel-good narrative of a steadily growing women’s game erases much of the actual history of women’s soccer, which filled stadiums long before the global organization got involved. But by giving the illusion of starting from scratch, of coming so far in so little time, it can bask in a story of positive change.

After all, those ideals Infantino champions in the right venues, to the right people, aren’t values really, they are a product that anyone can buy, for the right price. In February, players and fans expressed alarm when a new potential sponsor emerged, alongside mainstays such as Adidas and Coca Cola, for the event Infantino predicted would “unite the world in joy”: The tourism authority of Saudi Arabia.

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LESS DREADING, MORE DOING

This is the rubber-meets-road moment: the early days in our first fundraising drive since we took a big swing and merged with CIR to bring fearless investigative reporting to the internet, radio, video, and everywhere else that people need an antidote to lies and propaganda.

Donations have started slow, and we hope that explaining, level-headedly, why your support really is everything for our reporting will make a difference. Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” or in this 2:28 video about our merger (that literally just won an award), and please pitch in if you can right now.

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