New FIFA president tackles game’s image

March 2, 2016 by John Bihn, Contributing Writer

With the election of Gianni Infantino as president of the International Federation of International Football (FIFA) on Friday, the world’s foremost soccer organization appears to be taking a step forward in fighting the corruption that has plagued the body in recent years. However, it remains to be seen whether electing a new president will be enough for the public to regain faith in FIFA.

The election of Infantino came during an extraordinary session held after FIFA’s last president, Sepp Blatter, was removed from his post amid accusations of money laundering and bribery. Blatter’s unethical behavior, which also included interfering with FIFA investigations, sexist comments and mismanaging finances, was cause for FIFA to issue him a six-year ban from the sport.

FIFA elections have historically been the focus of heavy criticism from disillusioned observers. Blatter ran unopposed in 2011 after his opponent was found to have offered bribes to delegates from Caribbean soccer federations in exchange for their votes. In previous years, Blatter’s election victories were marred by accusations of bribery, though no formal charges were ever pressed.

Although Blatter did not participate in this election, some feared that one candidate, Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa of Bahrain, would continue the era of corruption within FIFA. Salman has been criticized for human rights violations committed during the quelling of protests in Bahrain, as well as accusations that he misused FIFA funds to support his campaign.

Most of the coverage of Infantino’s election victory in the media has been positive, an indicator that perhaps change is coming to FIFA. The organization made further strides by passing anti-corruption reforms earlier on Friday, including term limits on presidents and automatic disclosure of officials’ salaries. However, there will still be an uphill battle to regain public support, as Forza Football released a poll indicating that only 19 percent of people surveyed worldwide have confidence in FIFA.

FIFA’s public relations difficulty mirrors problems faced by another sport, one also more popular worldwide than in the United States: cycling. In the early 2000s, Americans were captivated by Lance Armstrong’s unprecedented seven Tour de France victories. However, in early 2013 Armstrong admitted to using banned substances during his victories. And he was not alone – from 1996 to 2010, only one winner of the Tour de France has not been stripped of their title for doping.

Today, if you ask a random sample of people what they think of cycling, the most common responses will likely all revolve around cheating. Cycling’s public perception remains tainted, despite major efforts at reform and a string of four years without the winner of a Grand Tour being stripped of their title due to doping. Further, average speeds on climbs in the Tour de France have been decreasing in recent years, implying that fewer riders are using steroids to unfairly inflate their abilities, which is a sign of progress for the sport.

It is unclear whether FIFA will follow the same path as cycling, condemned even as earnest reform efforts are taking place. One advantage is that FIFA’s woes are mostly limited to corruption off the field, while cycling faces concerns about the competitive integrity of the sport. Although FIFA cannot immediately wipe away years of corruption, the election of Infantino as president may be the beginning of a new era for the international soccer organization.

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