Gianni Infantino says FIFA has 'turned page'
Forces still exist 'that don't want change'
FIFA boss backs 48-team World Cup idea
As though the World Cup isn’t hard enough to win, FIFA president Gianni Infantino is looking to add another 16 teams to the competition.
The Swiss-Italian took over from Sepp Blatter as FIFA’s top official in February with the organization engulfed in accusations of bribery and corruption.
He hasn’t had the easiest of introductions since taking charge of an organization that made $5.7 billion in revenue in the four years leading up to the 2014 World Cup.
Infantino himself was recently implicated in the Panama Papers scandal while general secretary of European soccer’s governing body UEFA, but insists he has done nothing wrong and says when trying to force change “inevitably you address some issues that people don’t want to address.”
He was also cleared of wrongdoing by FIFA’s ethics committee after an inquiry into expenses, recruitment and alleged sacking of whistleblowers.
Asked whether such stories were evidence of people trying to undermine him, Infantino told CNN: “Well, definitely. Definitely there are forces that don’t want change.
“There are forces who maybe don’t want things to come out. I don’t care who they are. I go my way.”
When asked who or what those forces are, Infantino didn’t elaborate.
“We have embraced reforms,” he added. “We have embraced transparency. We have embraced good governance. And we move ahead.
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“FIFA not only can but is moving on from this. I mean the past is the past. We have turned a page. We are now operating and working with a completely different set-up with different people having different functions in this organization in a transparent way, in an open way and that’s the way we will operate.”
Infantino said changing FIFA’s name and even its base in Switzerland had been discussed in a bid to promote a new image, but ultimately the ideas were ruled out given the body’s “history” and “strong name in the world.”
FIFA has, though, made one change in no longer using Zurich’s luxurious Baur Au Lac hotel for visiting executive members to disassociate it with the old regime.
Soccer’s world governing body recently made waves when it scrapped the anti-racism task force, telling members it had “completely fulfilled its temporary mission.”
The move prompted widespread criticism, but Infantino says it was a “problem of communication” and insists “it’s not job done.”
“It’s quite the opposite,” he told CNN. “We are working every day to fight discrimination with concrete actions by rendering this organization more international. You don’t combat discrimination with a working group or a task force.
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“You combat it with actions, with measures. This Task Force has issued some recommendations which are now being implemented in reality, in fact, and that’s what we are doing.”
‘Party for football’
Nonetheless, there are widespread concerns about how minorities will be treated if they travel to Russia for the 2018 World Cup.
In August 2016, according to the respected Moscow-based SOVA Center for Information and Analysis, “racially motivated attacks affected at least six people in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, resulting in three deaths.”
Russian hooligans were also prominent during the 2016 European Championships in France.
However, Infantino says on the issue of fan safety he has been given “the necessary guarantees by the Russian FA and the Russian authorities. It will be a celebration. It will be a party for football,” he said.
“Russia is certainly also realizing that the spotlight of the world is focusing on the country and the World Cup will give it the possibility to show itself in a different light.
“We have to move to different areas of the world. We have to discuss these issues. We have to tackle these issues. FIFA’s not the police of the world. We are a football body. We cannot solve the problems of the world.
“What we can do is to put the spotlight and to discuss and to address and to try to tackle some of these issues. If we achieve to make them a little bit better, then it would have been worthwhile to do that.”
‘World Cup euphoria’
One idea Infantino is keen to push through is expanding the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams after Qatar 2022, with an initial knockout round before the traditional group stage format begins.
“The quality is certainly there,” he said. “Let’s not forget in the last World Cup both England and Italy have been eliminated by Costa Rica.
“If we take our mission seriously of developing football all over the world then there is no greater boost for a country or for a region to qualify for a World Cup.
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“There is a great enthusiasm in the whole country, a euphoria where everyone is looking forward to participating in the World Cup. Kids, boys, girls are getting interested in football.”
It cost Brazil $15 billion to stage the 2014 World Cup, but Infantino stresses the increased infrastructure needed to host an expanded tournament should not rule out certain countries hosting the World Cup.
“It wouldn’t because we also have to look seriously into co-hosting these kind of events,” he added.
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“Our requirements cannot any more be for one country to have 12 or 14 top stadiums, airports, facilities and so on but look at co-hosting which allows for two or three or four countries together to present a joint bid so everyone can present a reasonable way of organizing an event with much less costs involved.”
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And he said he was “very much in favor of continental rotation,” adding “football is not the prerogative of one or two continents but it’s really the world.”
On the possibility of the United States being awarded the World Cup in 2026, Infantino said: “I don’t even know if they want to get it in 2026. Obviously, if you look at the rotation and you see that we had 2010 in Africa, 2014 in South America, 2018 in Europe, 2022 in Asia, there are not many continents left.
“But of course they have to meet as well the requirements.”
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The bidding process for the 2026 tournament had been due to take place next year, but has been put on hold amid allegations of corruption surrounding the 2018 and 2022 votes.
Asked whether the last few years of FIFA history or the current U.S. presidential battle between Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton would be more suited to a soap opera, Infantino replied: “That would be a nice fight. Maybe the last few years of FIFA would be more a thriller than a soap opera.”