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New FIFA president: Good or bad for Gulf football?

Bahrain’s Sheikh Salman was seen as the region’s man for the job in the run up to Friday’s vote

Graham Ruthven

Published: Updated:

Sepp Blatter reigned as football’s most powerful figure for 18 years, holding the FIFA presidency for four full terms. He was untouchable until all of a sudden he was not. Now football has welcomed a new era with Gianni Infantino at the helm. Last Friday’s election in Zurich was a landmark moment for the game, with Infantino seeing off competition from Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa, Jerome Champagne, Prince Ali and Tokyo Sexwale.

The Swiss-Italian has his flaws, just like the rest of the field, but he boasted the best credentials for the role. What will Infantino’s election mean for football in the Gulf and Asia in general? Bahrain’s Sheikh Salman was seen as the region’s man for the job in the run up to Friday’s vote, with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) throwing its weight behind him. So what now that Infantino has taken office?

Having served as UEFA’s general secretary since 2009, he is very much viewed as European football’s representative at the top table, particularly after Michel Platini was banned from the sport for eight years (ultimately reduced to six years). The worry for the sport’s other confederations is that Infantino will use his new powers to serve UEFA ahead of everyone else. However, his election manifesto sought to please as many as possible.

That strategy saw him come out on top, but whether he will be able to fulfil his promises might prove a challenge. Blatter knew the value of appeasement, and it seems his successor does too. Football in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the wider Gulf region might not be Infantino’s primary focus as it would have been Sheikh Salman, but the former’s election could still impact the sport in the region.

Benefits

Infantino advocates an expanded World Cup, proposing that the competition finals could comprise 40 teams rather than the current 32. That could naturally be of benefit to nations such as the UAE that find themselves scrambling for a foothold on the sport’s biggest, most prestigious stage.

Infantino could make World Cup qualification a more achievable objective for these countries, though such proposals have been placed on the back-burner while reform bills are passed through the organization. FIFA must change from the ground up, and achieving that in a three-year term is undoubtedly Infantino’s greatest task.

In the immediate term, FIFA’s member states will benefit financially from his election. He believes the cash reserve stashed under Blatter’s tenure should be shared more equally around the sport, with football associations in 209 countries promised $5 million over four years, with each confederation paid $40 million. Infantino is a crowd-pleaser, and Gulf football should count itself among that crowd.

Questions

There are still questions about Infantino, most notably over his continued close association with Platini. He might have to distance himself from the disgraced UEFA president to keep his own nose clean, with Platini just as embroiled in the sport’s self-serving corruption as Blatter.

His backing of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations also lends itself to the notion that Infantino’s natural instinct is to maintain the status quo, making the rich richer and preserving the elite. This could be why he was so keen to push his proposals for an expanded World Cup, in an attempt to dispel that idea.

He might not have been Asian football’s pick, but Infantino could still be good for the game there. The sport must start thinking more inclusively anyway, with too many at the top only interested in serving themselves. What is good for football will ultimately be good for the UAE and the Gulf too.