Paris: In a wink to last year's World Cup and a move to distance FIFA from Sepp Blatter's regime, Seven Nations Army pounded through the loudspeakers, this time not to greet the participating teams, but the winner: Gianni Infantino. Football's supremo strode across the large stage at the Paris Expo, embraced AFC president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa and turned to the electorate in gratitude.
And thus the next chapter of the Infantino era began. Football officials from around the world stood, others sat, craning their necks. Mild applause punctuated the loud beats of the music. The congress of the world federation had taken just two hours and 45 minutes. Infantino spoke for much of it. The delegates clapped at scripted moments. Infantino spoke some more. He heralded a new FIFA and received a firm, first round of applause when he reminded the national federations that FIFA's reserves had soared to $2.75 billion.
His re-election by acclamation " eased by a proposal, adopted last Monday, to change FIFA statutes " was a mere formality. Three federations voted against the motion. Elections without opposition have become common in football. Since Infantino replaced Sepp Blatter in 2016, Aleksander Ceferin, Sheikh Salman and Alejandro Dominguez all retained their presidency unopposed in Europe, Asia and South America. In Africa, Ahmad Ahmad toppled longstanding football autocrat Issa Hayatou from Cameroon.
Administrators in football, where power structures are tight-knit, have not been disconcerted by a lack of opponents and what message that may send to the outside world. "FIFA is in good and safe hands with Gianni Infantino," said Praful Patel, who was elected to the FIFA Council as one of Asia's representatives in April. "He has shown great leadership, exemplary leadership in the last four years. Everything in FIFA is getting more streamlined and orderly and discipline has come into FIFA and that is very important."
CONCACAF president Victor Montagliani said: "FIFA is not a government. In governments you have people with different ideologies: labor and conservative parties, you know. FIFA is a private organisation that is run by the members. The members decide who their leaders are and changing the statutes to acclamation " everyone does it, so why would FIFA not do it? Quite frankly, those two hours just for lining up at a ballot box for one just doesn't make sense."
Queuing, it turns out, is not popular among football officials. On Tuesday CONMEBOL's extraordinary congress invoked the same, flimsy excuse to support Infantino's re-election by acclamation. Ideologies or democratic values seem to matter little in football. They never have and even less so after Infantino became the rare politician to deliver on his 2016 election promises. He expanded the World Cup to 48 teams in 2026, a tournament that will guarantee FIFA's future with a promised windfall of $11 billion.
And so, Infantino was emboldened to stage a fast-tracked and tightly-controlled congress with his own persona as the epicenter. He summed up his achievements, bragged about his invitation to the G-20, motioned Eritrea to get voting rights and quipped that the new FIFA means democracy. "It is important to vote," said Infantino. Above all, he emphasised that FIFA has been cleaned up. That is true to a certain extent. In 2015 " before Infantino's sudden rise " the FBI swept on the world federation and Zurich, but the Swiss-Italian moved quickly to ensure FIFA's own supposed guardians of the truth exited the organisation's judicial bodies " Maduro, Eckert and Borbely.
In Paris, Infantino, the faux reformer, strengthened his grip on FIFA. During the Congress that united world football there was no ideation, no discussion and no dissent. Instead, delegates feasted on French hospitality at the Grand Palais and in cushioned luxury hotels " one hotel's entrance cordoned off at times by police over protest's about CAF's Champions League final VAR debacle. Guam FA's president Valentino San Gil didn't fly home for his country's all-important World Cup qualifier against Bhutan. He preferred to sojourn with his wife in the French capital.
San Gil and his fellow national association bosses were happy to retain Infantino in power. The FIFA's president's $25 billion plan to sell off two competitions has been shelved, but he bookmarked the 2021 Club World Cup as the next tantalising cash cow. Distributing money has been a full-proof, Blatter-esque way of appeasing the electorate, but in Paris, Infantino's personal modus operandi crystallised more than ever and it increasingly seems his ideology won't allow for anything else. The Infantino age is well and truly underway.