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Gianni Infantino acknowledges his colleagues’ applause after he is named the new president of FIFA in Zurich, Switzerland, on Friday. (Michael Probst/AP)
Gianni Infantino acknowledges his colleagues’ applause after he is named the new president of FIFA in Zurich, Switzerland, on Friday. (Michael Probst/AP)

Kelly: Gianni Infantino is a sort of in utero Sepp Blatter Add to ...

During the week leading up to what FIFA called its “extraordinary” congress on Friday, camera operators made a daily pilgrimage to the luxury Zurich hotel where delegates were staying.

They’d line up outside the gates before sunrise, since Swiss cops prefer to do their raiding at dawn. Police had already interrupted two congresses in recent months. Nobody wanted to miss a third.

This time, the people in charge of world soccer were spared the embarrassment of being rousted from their rooms and perp-walked behind bed sheets. But a presidential vote that did very little to change FIFA’s calculus of power proves they haven’t learned the lesson yet.

If the most powerful governing sports body in the world was hoping to signal a brave new direction with a switch at the top, this wasn’t it. This was more of the same with a blank, new face.

After two rounds of voting, Sepp Blatter was officially replaced as FIFA president by Gianni Infantino, a sort of in utero Blatter.

Infantino, 45, is also a Swiss lawyer. He’s also a remarkably effective backroom boy. He also speaks in frustratingly non-specific blandishments pulled from the devil’s PowerPoint. He is – and I say this with maximum possible suspicion – a compromiser.

Infantino was formerly the general secretary of UEFA, Europe’s soccer overseers. He stepped into the race after his boss and Blatter’s likeliest successor, Michel Platini, was banned eight years for receiving corrupt payments. Three days ago, that penalty was reduced to six years in light of Platini’s “services” to football.

Until this week, Infantino’s public profile derived from being the man in charge of the bouncing balls when the seedings of Europe’s great tournaments were decided.

How FIFA. In just a few days, someone’s gone from Vanna White to Cardinal Richelieu. Infantino is now the man who turns the wheel of power, though few will ever see him do it.

Though he had no power base, Infantino won by recruiting from the same precincts that propped up Blatter’s corrupt regime, notably Africa.

Until Friday’s vote, the front-runner, Bahraini royal Sheik Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, had stated confidently that Africa was lined up behind his candidacy. The poor man. Who could have believed FIFA delegates might say one thing and do another?

Sheik Salman was perhaps an even greyer man than Infantino. He’d been one of Blatter’s key aides. His platform amounted to saying absolutely nothing he might be pinned to later.

He dismissed Infantino’s only concrete idea – massively expanding the World Cup’s earning potential by including 40 qualifying nations – as “unprofessional.” Once Salman realized all his voters were motivated not just primarily by fiduciary concerns, but only by them, he tried to change tack.

Conversely, Infantino promised all sorts of goodies – $5-million disbursements to all member nations; additional money for youth tournaments; a sweet travel budget and other pillaging opportunities. Infantino understands what Blatter had always known – that even rich people could be bought cheaply.

Salman might still have won. His run was undone by a late-breaking outrage involving security crackdowns in his own country during the Arab Spring. The last thing FIFA needed was another human-rights scandal added to the ongoing farce of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

The two change candidates, Jordan’s Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein and former French diplomat Jérôme Champagne, were left in the dust early. They’d been given an interested hearing – if only so that the public could hear it, too – and paid no mind.

What Infantino and Salman had in common was an evasively articulated commitment to continue business as usual. Earlier in the day, FIFA voted on its “reforms.” They include exceedingly vague promises of independent oversight of financial dealings and a declaration that all future presidents must vacate the job after 12 years. Twenty-eight anonymous members still refused to vote for them.

All the same people remain in control at the middle-management level. At least, the ones who won’t soon be in prison.

Whatever Infantino and FIFA promise now, it won’t mean much. Over nearly 20 years in charge, Blatter repeatedly showed that rules were made for convenient breaking. All one needed to do was point out the self-interest, send out the private jets and bring everyone together for a new vote. A blind eye can massage everything else.

“I want to be the president of all of you. I travelled through the globe and I will continue to do this. I want to work with all of you to restore and rebuild a new era where we can put football in the centre of the stage,” Infantino said after he’d won, according to The Guardian. “FIFA has gone through sad times, moments of crisis. But those times are over.”

It sounds so like Blatter’s florid, tone-deaf style, the old man might’ve written it himself.

It may fool many people. Even the ones who shouldn’t be.

Over the past few years, Blatter’s most vocal critic from inside the fortress was Greg Dyke, chairman of England’s Football Association. After England was jobbed out of the 2018 World Cup because it refused to pay off the right people, Dyke was the man who went before a parliamentary committee to say the process was “fixed.”

It wasn’t the first domino, but it was one of the more significant. Dyke was just about the only whistle blower who didn’t have an indictment hanging over his head.

Ahead of Friday’s vote, Dyke was a long human sigh in coverage, repeatedly pointing out that while the names might change, the rotting structure underneath hadn’t.

“Dare I make a prediction,” Dyke said. “That if Mr. Blatter was standing this time, he might well win.”

Once it was done, Dyke was once again polled for his opinion.

“[Infantino is] very competent, very organized, very together. Not a showman, but good fun. He has got a lot of qualities and it will be very good for FIFA,” Dyke said.

Dyke had once suggested that Qatar should lose the right to play host to the 2022 World Cup, if it could be proved that it had obtained them through corrupt means.

On Friday, that line of rhetoric was lost in the baffles of enthusiasm for the new king. Dyke said he is keen for England to bid again for 2030.

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Follow on Twitter: @cathalkelly

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