In the days before the World Cup began, Qatar had been unusually warm. On the eve of the first game, in an auditorium in Doha’s airport-like convention centre, Gianni Infantino, president of football’s governing body Fifa, decided to turn up the temperature even more.
“Today I feel Qatari,” he told the assembled journalists. “Today I feel Arab. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel disabled. Today I feel [like] a migrant worker. I feel like them because I know what it means . . . to be bullied.”
So began an hour-long diatribe in which Infantino railed against Qatar’s critics, accused Europe of hypocrisy, bashed the press and even took a swipe at the polling industry for failing to gauge the mood of the public.
His overriding message to the west was: this World Cup is not for you, it’s for everybody else. Some saw a tin-eared autocrat; others a new spokesman for the global south.
The next day Infantino sat beside Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to watch the tournament’s opening fixture between the host nation and Ecuador. There followed a row over rainbow armbands — eight European teams had planned to wear them to promote inclusion in a country where homosexuality is illegal. Fifa threatened players with punishment on the pitch and the Europeans eventually backed down.
Infantino was born in 1970 in the Swiss town of Brig into a poor family of Italian immigrants. At school he played football, but by the age of 10 he decided his talents lay elsewhere and started organising tournaments between children from different countries. This, he says in a short film about him produced for Qatar Airways, taught him about the power of football to bring people together.
He trained as a lawyer, and became part of the cadre of civil servants that Switzerland has long produced to fill the corridors of Fifa, the International Olympic Committee and other major sporting bodies domiciled there. He joined Uefa, the governing body of European football, in 2000, rising to become its secretary-general in 2009.
In 2015, the world of football was rocked by an FBI investigation which led to the indictment of several Fifa executives, with US prosecutors accusing the organisation of corruption and criminality. Sepp Blatter, the long-serving Fifa president (who is also Swiss), would later resign.
Following Blatter’s downfall, Uefa chief Michel Platini was Europe’s candidate to replace him. But then revelations emerged of payments between the two men (the pair were acquitted of fraud in July). Searching for a respectable alternative, Uefa’s decision makers put Infantino forward.
After being elected president of Fifa in 2016, he promised to tackle the organisation’s rotten culture, and to give more cash to member federations. On both counts, he can claim to have delivered. Fifa’s governance was overhauled, as was the bidding process for future World Cups.
For many smaller members, who depend on Fifa’s money, Infantino’s tenure has been a boon. But critics say the old system of patronage has simply evolved rather than gone away.
“He’s a gambler,” says one former associate. “He’s very aggressive in pushing new ideas. But he lacks critical voices around him. He brings in people who are loyal to him.”
The Qatar World Cup has been a public relations slog for Fifa. The 12 years since Doha secured hosting rights have been filled with questions about the treatment of migrant workers, LGBT+ rights and the logistical efforts of hosting the world’s biggest sporting event in a tiny desert kingdom. Blatter himself has since called the tournament a “mistake”.
But while Qatar was Infantino’s inheritance from the previous regime, he has embraced the tournament’s first Middle Eastern host with enthusiasm, even relocating to Doha for long periods with his Lebanese wife Leena and their four children.
His defenders point out that the World Cup is Fifa’s only real source of revenue, while engagement with undemocratic regimes is an unavoidable part of global sport. “There are elements of the president’s role that take him away from the pitch,” says former Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, who is now Fifa’s chief of global football development. “But fundamentally he is a real football fan.”
Some who have worked with Infantino describe a demanding personality. Where his predecessor would deploy old-fashioned charm, the incumbent’s only currency is hard work. Blatter had a bed in a room attached to his office so he could take naps; Infantino replaced it with exercise machines.
Blatter described his successor in 2020 as a “megalomaniac” on a mission to turn football into a “huge money machine”.
“Nowadays we want a headline — everyone is either a hero or a villain,” says a former colleague. “The reality is sometimes in the middle”.
Following the bruising experience of this World Cup, Infantino’s next challenge may well be handling a Saudi bid to host the tournament in 2030. Fifa’s new rules require certain human rights standards to be met by prospective hosts.
Some European federations have discussed withholding support for Infantino when he faces re-election early next year. But it will make little difference — there are too few western European votes to have any effect. And besides, Infantino is running unopposed.