PtG Article 16.06.2018

Money talks in FIFA. Still

In this report about the opening days of the World Cup in Russia, Andreas Selliaas discusses the Saudi Arabian influence in international football, Gianni Infantino’s announcement of running for a new term as FIFA president and the ghost of Sepp Blatter.

Despite the big loss to Russia in the opening game at Luzhniki stadium in Moscow (Saudi Arabia lost 5-0 to the host nation Russia), Saudi Arabia should be more than happy with the outcome in Russia. The same goes for FIFA president Gianni Infantino. Now, both Saudi Arabia and Infantino are counting on Infantino being re-elected at the FIFA congress in Paris next June.

“I want another four years of it because I believe in what I do,” a confident FIFA president told the press after the FIFA congress taking place at the Expocenter in Moscow on 13 June.

“I believe in what I can do for FIFA and for football. I feel, as well, a lot of support from many around the world who want to see a strong FIFA, who want to see a FIFA who is present, a FIFA who is helping to address their issues about football development,” he continued.

He also, in his address to the congress, took a punch at his predecessor Sepp Blatter.

“In 2016, FIFA was clinically dead as an organisation,” he told the 210 delegates present at the congress (Ghana was absent due to corruption allegations).

These statements would have been impossible had the Moroccan bid won the right to host the World Cup in 2026. Morocco lost big to the joint bid from USA, Mexico and Canada (United2026) with the numbers 134-65 in favour of the American bid.

The battle of 2026 was not only a fight between a united American bid and a bidder from the African continent, it was also a battle between the two biggest enemies in Asia at the moment: Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

United2026 and Infantino

Qatar was one of the first backers of the surprising Moroccan bid, launched in January 2018. Qatar’s support prompted a quick response from Saudi Arabia, who instead rooted for the United2026 bid. This was not only the backing of a World Cup bid, it was also a geopolitical maneuverer to hurt Qatar.

Reports from the Moscow hotel lobbies and the corridors of the Expocenter, where the congress took place, said that Gianni Infantino’s entourage was lobbying hard to convince delegates that United2026 was the best choice. It is fair to assume that he considered the election of the World Cup host as pivotal to his future role as FIFA president. There are two reasons why:

Firstly, a win for the United bid would be a nice gesture for the former president of the US football federation and the former FIFA ExCo member Sunil Gulati, who was one of Gianni Infantino’s kingmakers at the extraordinary FIFA Congress in 2016, where Infantino was elected.

“He’s a candidate we get along very well with and who understands the nuances of the American market,” Gulati said before the election of Infantino in 2016.

“It’s a little early to talk about 2026, but rest assured, it got brought up in some of the discussions we had over the last couple days,” he continued.

Lobbying for the United2026 bid was certainly a continuation of the discussions Gulati and Infantino had in Zürich in 2016 after Gulati convinced many of the Asian delegates to vote for Infantino in the second ballot. In this second round, Infantino convincingly beat Sheik Salman of Bahrain.

Secondly, being on the losing side with Saudi Arabia on this issue would have been a disaster for Infantino while trying to secure a new term as president and would have made it much easier for other candidates to enter the race. With the United2026 win, it will be hard to challenge Gianni Infantino in Paris next year.

Saudi Arabia and US United

Even if United2026 won with a landslide, there was great uncertainty in the run up to the vote. Some observers believe that had the vote been held just weeks before, Morocco would have had a good chance of winning the race.

Close to the vote in Moscow, Saudi Arabia established a new regional voting bloc, controlling 11 votes, and labelled it the South West Asian Football Federation (SWAFF), just to split the Asian votes and to hurt its regional opponent Qatar backing Morocco.

Further, several US governmental agencies, for instance the US state department, put significant pressure on sports ministries throughout Africa to get their football federations to back United2026. US president Donald Trump, in a rare act of unity, sent three(!) letters to FIFA confirming that US immigration policies would not be a problem during the joint World Cup in USA, Mexico and Canada.

This together with a number of federations probably taking the scores of the technical reports of the two bids into consideration (where United scored far better on most parameters than Morocco), the lobbying of the people around Gianni Infantino and the pressure from both the US and Saudi Arabian governments brought the World Cup in 2026 to America.

Cash is king

Decisive for both the selection of the World Cup in 2026 and the election of the FIFA president in 2019 will be the size of presumed revenues flowing in to FIFA and the national FA’s around the world. Money talks in FIFA, as always. This was also the case under Joao Havelange and Sepp Blatter.

This continuation of “cash is king”-policy was obvious in the last phase of the World Cup bid. In the beginning, Morocco predicted that they would make a 5-billion dollar profit in 2026, while the United bid predicted 11-billion dollar profit. In the presentation made to the congress in Moscow, Morocco had raised this to 7.2 billions and United to 14.3 billion dollars.

For outsiders, it is hard to see where they found new money in such a short time. Even the president of the Moroccan Football Federation, Fouzi Lekjaa, thought the numbers went crazy in the run up to the congress, especially the United projections.

“There is lots of uncertainty. That doesn’t correspond either to historical facts or future extrapolation, it’s an exercise that goes beyond that,” he said to the Associated Press.

However, the FIFA Task Force, put up by Gianni Infantino, evaluating both bids, assessed that the 14.3 billion profit gave the United2026 bid a “strong advantage” over its rival. It turned out they were right.

FIFA profit and finances were main themes in everything Gianni Infantino said during the congress. A solid FIFA economy and increased money transfers to the FA’s is the best way to secure him another four-year term as FIFA president. That is Blatter-style all over again.

Infantino highlighted that the four-year cycle ending this year has produced a 6.1 billion dollars income and suggested that each FA will receive 6 million dollars for investment in football projects in the future. This is music to the ears of most football federations all over the world.

Is the ghost of Blatter gone?

In the year until the FIFA congress in Paris, Gianni Infantino may provide FIFA, big clubs and national FA’s with even more cash.

In April, Financial Times revealed that a group of investors from China, Saudi Arabia, the US and the United Arab Emirates were behind a radical 25-billion-dollar plan to create an expanded “Club World Cup”, a tournament currently played with seven top teams from across the globe. Further, they proposed a new international league competition for national teams. FIFA will have a 51 per cent stake in a joint venture with the consortium.

Gianni Infantino has embraced this idea, but it has caused great anger in UEFA and with UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin, because Infantino would not admit who was behind the proposed consortium.

Gianni Infantino has also angered many going along with a suggestion to expand the World Cup in Qatar in 2022 from 32 to 48 teams (the same as it will be in 2026). This is definitely a move that will not only comfort the Saudi branch of the football world but also secure extended revenues for FIFA. There was no vote on these issues at the congress in Moscow, but that does not mean the ideas are dead. Quite the contrary.

At the opening game between Saudi Arabia and Russia, FIFA president Gianni Infantino was sitting in between Saudi prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Russian president Vladimir Putin doing handshakes, chatting and cracking jokes. Before the World Cup there were reports that former FIFA president Sepp Blatter would also be present, even though he is not allowed to take part in organised football activities during his 6-year suspension from football. But although Blatter sees himself as a good friend of Vladimir Putin, he was nowhere to be seen.

It would seem that the ghost of Blatter is gone and that Gianni Infantino is benefiting from big revenues and promised cash flow to the football family.