The South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) and its strategic partner, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) used last week’s online FIFA Council meeting to flex a bit of muscle, the first time they are doing this since COVID-19 thwarted a similar plan earlier in the year.
Unbeknownst to FIFA President Gianni Infantino, UEFA and CONMEBOL had laid an ambush for him at the first full FIFA Council meeting of the year, seeking to introduce a vote-of-no-confidence in him.
When Infantino got wind of the plan, he hurriedly called off the meeting in a panic, informing members that COVID-19 had created uncertainties which compelled him to hold the meeting by digital means, at a later date, ostensibly when he had had an opportunity to assess the situation and understood its impact.
But why would the two giant confederations want to eject Infantino from his presidency considering that he came from them, having held various senior positions at UEFA, including that of Secretary-General in the years preceding the 2016 election that brought him to FIFA?
Barely 4 years into his tenure as FIFA President, UEFA and CONMEBOL have discovered that Infantino is an existential threat to them and their competitions, intent on cannibalizing their money-spinning competitions by fronting brand new showcases that would be powered by Saudi Arabian money.
Unfortunately, whilst Infantino is sly and conniving, he lacks the political dexterity of his predecessor, the old fox Sepp Blatter, who had deftly maneuvered the granting of FIFA World Cups, under the pretext of fairness and parity, to South Africa and Brazil (2010 and 2014 respectively) by making them exclusively African and South American World Cups, where only members of these confederations would slug it out for these slots.
It would likely have been impossible for an African country to host a FIFA World Cup this century had it not been for the deft machinations of Blatter, a philosophy he carried forward in all major dealings with confederations.
Blatter understood the cultural peculiarities that drive UEFA and CONMEBOL interests that supersede mere money, and upon which European competitions and passion is based.
Some competitions, like the UEFA Champions league are a mix of many ingredients including, for example, tragedy, like the Munich Air Disaster of 1958, in which members of the young Manchester United squad led by Sir Matt Busby perished, along with supporters and journalists, as the team was returning from a European Cup match in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, having eliminated Red Star Belgrade to advance to the semi-finals of the competition.
The flight stopped to refuel in Munich because a non-stop flight from Belgrade to Manchester was beyond the plane’s capability.
Or the Hillsborough disaster in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England, on 15 April 1989 which occurred during an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest in the two standing-only central pens in the Leppings Lane stand allocated to Liverpool supporters, after over-crowding and bad calls from those charged with crowd control.
These competitions are steeped in history and culture, woven intricately into the fabric of European and South American football fanaticism, which in turn drives revenues from broadcast and other sponsorships.
Infantino, apparently unlike Blatter, never immersed himself in the cultural elements of European and South American football, to best understand what these competitions mean to the people from those confederations and why they would be opposed to destroying and replacing them.
For Infantino, UEFA was just another desk job for a Swiss lawyer who seemed unable or unwilling to step into the competitive legal market, preferring instead to use the good graces of then UEFA President Michel Platini to propel himself upwards in UEFA, before organizing the ultimate betrayal on him, in order to secure safe passage to the FIFA Presidency.
Blatter deeply understood these elements, having been FIFA SG for 17 years before coming into the FIFA Presidency.
Much to the chagrin of some of our readers, we have no option but to infer that this cultural indifference is ingrained in a huge population of the Swiss, and manifests itself strangely. For instance, despite Switzerland taking a neutral stand during the 2 World Wars of the last century (opting instead to do roaring business with both sides in the conflict), Switzerland has one of the highest per capita private gun ownership anywhere in the World.
A citizenry in the centre of Europe (therefore the epicenter of the conflicts) that did not fire a single bullet as everyone around them was, owning that many guns now can be viewed as over-compensation after the fact, no?
Anecdotally, the story of how Paris was saved gives context to the importance of culture, Nazi Gen. Dietrich von Choltitz received orders to burn down Paris if it became clear that the Allies were going to invade, or if he could not maintain control of the city. After much contemplation Choltitz decided to ignore his orders, enraging the Germans in the process, towards the end of World War II.
It is where the infamous words Paris brûle-t-il? (Is Paris burning?) said uttered by Adolf Hitler come from, but 75 years later the action of disregarding those orders has paid off handsomely with France receiving almost 80 million annual visitors, to immerse themselves in this rich cultural phenomenon.
Anyway, Platini (a Frenchman) understood these cultural elements very well which is why he birthed the famous Financial Fairplay (FFP) rules at UEFA, essentially to ring-fence clubs culture from forceful acquisition by high-spending foreigners, who would pump in outrageous sums of money into the purchase of players, in pursuit of UEFA Champions League glory.
Infantino ignominiously assisted the Arab-owned PSG and Manchester City to circumvent the FFP rules in 2014 as Secretary-General, in what will be his enduring legacy that UEFA.
In the end, Infantino thought that all Confederations would be beside themselves when he mentioned the projected revenue figures from the deal with the Saudis, but he found that the clandestine nature of his negotiations with them had already fired up deep suspicions within the confederations and he was thus seen to be dealing with his members in bad faith.
UEFA President Aleksandr Ceferin even personally protested the FIFA-CAF hostile takeover of August 2019, where FIFA sent its own SG Mme. Fatma Samoura to become a special delegate of FIFA at CAF for 6 months.
The plan to bring Samoura over to Africa was largely to help ring-fence African confederation (CAF) President and Infantino ally Ahmad Ahmad from calls for his removal from this position, immediately after an arrest in Paris and a damning dossier lodged with the FIFA Ethics committee.
All of this set the backdrop of last week’s vote by the FIFA Council for the award of the hosting rights to the Women’s World Cup 2023, coming as it did on the back of the withdrawal of Japan’s bid to host the event, following a delay in the hosting of Olympic games, and coming hot on the heels of a successful hosting of the Rugby World Cup 2019.
With Japan out, the race was now between a joint Australia –New Zealand bid against one by Colombia, countries from Asian and Oceania (AFC & OFC) confederations on the one hand and CONMEBOL on the other, respectively.
A FIFA technical evaluation of the bids had placed Colombia very low on the totem-pole of hosts, and the withdrawal of Japan literally set the stage for Australia – New Zealand.
However at the end of voting last Thursday, out of the 35 votes cast, the joint Aussie – New Zealand bid got 22 votes from CAF, AFC, OFC, CONCACAF and Infantino himself.
UEFA and CONMEBOL voted to a man, all 13 votes in favor of the technically inferior Colombia bid.
Why would UEFA and CONMEBOL, the gold standard in football development, passion and commercialization side with an inferior bid?
In some quarters, melodramatic natives of Australia and New Zealand have called for the removal of Union Jack (the British flag) from the top left corner of their respective flags, following the perceived betrayal and disrespect by English FA President Greg Clarke in that vote.
Clearly, this was the first time that UEFA and CONMEBOL were taking their alliance out for a ride, testing it out in real-life scenarios and sending a chilling message to Infantino – we haven’t gone away yet, you know!
It was also a reminder to Infantino that they have not forgotten his betrayal and that they would band together and escalate the war after the COVID-19 hiatus.
Most importantly though, the vote was as a litmus test to the widely held belief that CAF and CONCACAF are firmly in Infantino’s pocket, with the tradeoff that the FIFA Ethics committee would not prosecute their members for financial impropriety if they voted how Infantino wanted.
Apparently UEFA President Aleksandr Ceferin had reached out to embattled CAF President Ahmad seeking his support for the Colombia bid, and the forked-tongued Ahmad had promised his unequivocal support, along with that of his African compatriots.
In the days preceding the vote, FIFA had sent out an innocuous statement from its Ethics committee, stating that it has 13 active investigations and 62 preliminary cases pending before its two committees.
A clearly overt threat to anyone who may have been thinking of voting independently in the FIFA Council.
While Infantino obviously voted for the Trans-Tasman bid, questions linger on why FIFA goes through the technical evaluation in the first place, and why the recommendations or outcomes of the evaluation report are not used to eliminate weak bids.
Why should weak bidders make it to the main race, knowing that “other” considerations would emerge in the voting, because in this case, the Trans-Tasman bid was far, far more superior, a concession that even the Japanese FA President made as he announced his country’s withdrawal.
Now everyone knows where everybody else stands and why, which will make the next phase of this epic war especially scintillating.
One thing is for sure, Infantino is bad for all football, anywhere on the globe.
His continued dalliance and excusal of FA Presidents who blatantly steal from their Associations, the political maneuvers witnessed in Africa and the Caribbean to maintain his allies in power at the expense of the football aspirations of more than a Billion people, reeks of Swiss insensitivity, arrogance, subterfuge and intellectual laziness.
Clearly, UEFA and CONMEBOL have now understood the mortal danger that they face from these voting machines, FA and Confederation officials who can be bought or blackmailed into thoughtlessly casting their votes on subjects that they have no interest or stake.
Africa in particular, continues to limp painfully towards a sure death of its Confederation and its competitions, following the ill-advised withdrawal late last year from a 12-year, billion dollar guaranteed commercial deal with French agency Lagardere Sports and Entertainment (LSE) based purely on the speculative fiction peddled within CAF and FIFA, that these African commercial properties are likely worth more than double what they had been offered by LSE.
CAF, which erroneously compares itself with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) also attempts to peg its commercial ask on the AFC’s latest deal that it signed, a $4 billion, 8 year deal with a Chinese agency.
CAF officials then went on to steal in excess of $24 million from CAF reserves that had been built-up over years by former CAF President Issa Hayatou, we have since discovered that the general angst within CAF against Hayatou had always been that he had used his force of character to ring-fence these reserves from the grubby hands of some officials, who eventually ganged up to eject him in 2017.
For Africa and the Caribbean, the only hope now would be for someone to hit the reset button on things, and Gianni Infantino has proved too partial, too incompetent and too greedy to do so.
Only UEFA and CONMEBOL have the gravitas to do so, and they hold the ace up their sleeve.
One of the new competitions proposed by FIFA is the Club World Cup (CWC), which was brought in to replace the moribund Confederations Cup and whose inaugural hosting was China in 2021.
Obviously with a 2nd wave of the COVID-19 reportedly sweeping through China and cities like Beijing now being locked down, the level of preparedness in hosting this tournament will be impacted, whichever way you look at it.
UEFA had already sent subtle messages that its teams would not be participating in this CWC, opting instead to take part in an expanded format of the International Champions Cup, a pre-season competition for Europe’s top clubs that has been run by American promoters Relevent Sports since 2013.
Simultaneously, UEFA has proposed and been implementing a vertical expansion of its various competitions like expanding the European Championship and creating the Nation’s League, with plans at advanced stage for the expansion of Champions League by 3 or 4 matchdays.
UEFA insiders tell us that these radical changes to their competitions have been driven largely by new employees in senior positions after the departure of Infantino, who also did UEFA a big favor by headhunting his loyalists in UEFA and transplanting them (and their incompetencies) into FIFA, thus making way for fresh ideas and speed of execution.
But UEFA also realized the danger posed by Infantino, who by virtue of having been an insider, he would use this intimate knowledge of the organization to target any unexploited opportunities in UEFA, and to commercialize them for FIFA much to UEFAs detriment, and then use the revenues thereon to reward the voting machines in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean to vote against the self-same UEFA & CONMEBOL interests.
Thus we see the urgency within UEFA to close these loopholes, with a philanthropic element attached to it that the other confederations (CAF, AFC,CONCACAF and OFC) be given space to build up their own competitions and commercialize them accordingly.
UEFA have determined that the era of freebies by FIFA Presidents must end, that they will no longer allow themselves to be used for commercial exploitation, which then goes on to oil the voting machine of ne’er-do-wells and layabouts from these other Confederations.
But when this game approaches zero-sum, even the FIFA World Cup will be in jeopardy and FIFA can then kiss itself goodbye.
Just as COVID-19 has indelibly changed the World, this tiff between FIFA and its Confederations, might change football similarly, forever.