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Gianni Infantino backs into FIFA presidency

ZURICH — New FIFA President Gianni Infantino is like the substitute who came off the bench to score the winning goal in a cup final to stun the favorites.

When Infantino stepped on the Zurich stage on Friday to be acclaimed as head of world soccer, he knew his former boss Michel Platini should have been there instead of him.

“I thank Michel Platini for everything that he has given me, that he has taught me,” said Infantino, who is leaving his job as UEFA general secretary.

Had Platini not billed FIFA for 2 million Swiss francs ($2 million) in 2011 and been banned last year from football as a result, the former France captain and not his UEFA No. 2 would be in charge of the global game.

Infantino stunned pre-election favorite Sheikh Salman of Bahrain by beating the Asian confederation president 115-88 in a second round of voting when rivals Prince Ali of Jordan collected four votes and Jerome Champagne failed to garner any.

Infantino raised his tally from the 88 collected in the first round as Prince Ali’s support dropped. It appeared Thursday’s late night talks with CONCACAF and Oceania delegates in their Zurich hotel restaurant paid off for Infantino.

The Inter Milan-supporting Infantino was better known as being the face of televised Champions League draws until this campaign, recognizable by his distinctive bald pate.

Now the Swiss-born Infantino, who has Italian nationality, is responsible for the whole of soccer, no longer Platini’s support act.

He inherits a governing body from disgraced 79-year-old leader Sepp Blatter with its reputation at rock-bottom and a far-reaching, global bribery scandal hitting staff morale and FIFA’s cash flow.

At 45, Infantino presents a new, younger face of FIFA at a time it is trying to regain its credibility.

Infantino told The Associated Press on Wednesday that becoming FIFA president was his “destiny” — adopting the language used by Platini until his boss at Europe’s governing body was banished in disgrace.

Infantino’s career path unexpectedly changed course in September when Swiss police swooped on FIFA headquarters to question both Blatter and Platini about a 2011 financial transaction.

With Platini quickly suspended, Infantino emerged as Europe’s Plan B for the emergency presidential election, entering the race on deadline-day in October.

“We made a draw and my name came out,” Infantino joked to the AP in his first campaign interview in November.

Throughout the campaign, as he crisscrossed the globe collecting on endorsements that were quickly tweeted, Infantino made no secret of his enduring fondness for Platini and they have remained in contact.

One of his headline policies was lifted directly from Platini: Expanding the World Cup from 32 to 40 teams. Infantino also made a big play with a pledge to hike cash handouts to FIFA’s 209 member associations.

Rival Sheikh Salman claimed Infantino would bankrupt FIFA as it faced a $550 million shortfall in the 2015-2018 World Cup cycle.

But Infantino pointed to his administrative experience successfully steering UEFA through the worst of the global financial crisis and boosting revenue.

Infantino became adept at the networking required to rise in the close-knit world of soccer and was regularly seen strategizing on the streets outside hotels with fellow smokers on committees.

But he could quickly find that being UEFA’s top administrator carries more power than the reshaped FIFA presidency, with reforms approved before Friday’s vote limiting some of the powers enjoyed by Blatter.

“The president’s role will be strategic, ambassadorial and no longer executive,” FIFA told candidates about the reforms Infantino helped to formulate as a member of the reform committee.

Genuinely multi-lingual — he speaks accent-less English, French, Italian, German and Spanish as well as a little Arabic and Portuguese — Infantino used several of the languages in speeches on Friday. Blatter spoke those languages, but was sometimes mocked for his heavy accent.

A Swiss-educated lawyer, he worked as secretary general of the Swiss-based and FIFA-backed International Centre for Sports Studies before embarking on his rise up UEFA after joining in 2000 and becoming general secretary in 2009

Football has also shaped Infantino’s personal life, having met his wife through her work with the Lebanese football federation. They have four children.

Now Infantino has the top job in soccer — one he never expected to be in his reach until a few months ago.

Associated Press
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Associated Press

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