The United States
Infantino has pledged to launch the host-selection process for the 2026 FIFA World Cup within his first 90 days as FIFA President.
At this moment, admittedly more than a decade away from kick-off, the USA appears red-hot favourite to secure the right to stage its second World Cup.
The man from Brig’s manifesto gives the impression of pledging a 40-team World Cup.
And while the phrase “naturally, this must be properly debated with all the stakeholders involved” affords some wriggle-room, Infantino would probably have to deal with some disappointed supporters if he now backs away from the idea – not that he is showing any intention of doing so in these his first days in the job.
There are only a certain number of countries that could comfortably cope with a tournament of that scale.
The USA is obviously one.
China – thought by some to have backed the former UEFA general secretary in preference to Asian Football Confederation President Shaikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa – is plainly another.
The Asian colossus might, however, be a better bet for a later tournament – provided, of course, that Qatar keeps the 2022 World Cup, about which more later.
The white hair and bird-like dartings of the Indian-born United States Soccer Federation (USSF) President were much in evidence during the interminable second round of the voting process, all one hour and 17 minutes of it, in Zurich last Friday.
It appears he was beavering away trying to ensure (with great success) that as many as possible of those who, like the USA, backed Prince Ali bin al-Hussein in the first round, switched their allegiance to Infantino.
The new FIFA President owes Gulati, who is also a FIFA Executive Committee member, a big debt of gratitude, certainly for the clear-cut nature of his ultimate victory.
Some of the smart money now sees the 56-year-old economics lecturer as the likely next FIFA secretary general.
This will be an absolutely critical role in Infantino’s first term, until 2019, owing to the damage done to FIFA’s finances by the current crisis.
Simply stated, if FIFA’s status as one of the most productive money machines in sport cannot be re-established, and re-established quickly, then Infantino will have to pare back, or delay implementation of, the development spending promises that played a big part in getting him elected.
Appointment of a US secretary general, along with the kick-starting of the 2026 process, might well be enough to grab the attention of the wealthy and powerful US corporate sector and induce some of them to invest in FIFA’s future.
It would be as well to make an impression with this audience before September 2017, when a US city – Los Angeles – might well be chosen as host of the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games, providing a major distraction.
By marshalling a savvy, aggressive campaign, the London-based sports election specialists ensured that their energetic, extravagantly multilingual client gave himself every chance of pulling off a come-from-behind victory.
Being able to claim that they guided the man who is now the most powerful figure in world football to victory in the most important contest of his life should clearly act as a pretty eye-catching calling-card in the never-ending quest for new business.
More than that, though, there must now be a good chance that Infantino will be invited to join the most exclusive club in the sport – the IOC – this summer or next, conceivably at the same time as another Vero client, Lord Sebastian Coe, recently-elected President of another problem-plagued body, the International Association of Athletics Federations.
While the 45-year-old Infantino would of course be expected to be his own man in this new role, one might be forgiven for surmising that the bonds formed in this election may help Vero to ensure that Olympic clients are granted a full and sympathetic hearing ahead of future contests, starting with the race for the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games, where the company is representing Paris.
As the biggest of the six football Confederations, with 54 member Associations, Africa might have been expected to play a key role in determining the identity of the next FIFA President.
As it transpired, however, the continent mainly backed the wrong man.
While a few countries probably switched to Infantino in the second round, after the momentum had swung decisively his way, I believe the vast majority of African associations – over 40 – cast their first vote for Shaikh Salman.
While the continent may still emerge as a significant beneficiary of what increased development spending Infantino does engineer, this may leave it in a weakened position when negotiating other matters, such as World Cup slots.
A month ago at Wembley, Infantino mused publicly about the possibility of appointing an African secretary general.
I have to say I would be surprised if that now happens.
Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah
It has been a difficult year for Sheikh Ahmad, President of the Association of National Olympic Committees, who looked at one stage as if he might emerge as a candidate for the FIFA Presidency himself.
Though he was frequently absent from his designated top-table seat at Friday’s FIFA Congress, there is some divergence of opinion as to how diligently the Sheikh, who is also a FIFA ExCo member, was batting for Shaikh Salman in the closing stages of the election.
Nevertheless, such a clear-cut defeat for his Asian football protégé is bound to be interpreted in some circles as somewhat diminishing his stature as one of the Big Beasts of international sport.
The contest looks to have split Arab football clean down the middle, with United Arab Emirates, Syria, Oman, Yemen and others thought not to have supported Shaikh Salman. (Sheikh Ahmad’s home association Kuwait is suspended and therefore could not vote.)
Eyes in the Olympic world will now switch to other fields, such as the process of selecting those to be inducted as new IOC members in Rio de Janeiro this summer, for a fresh gauge as to Sheikh Ahmad’s standing.
Worth keeping your eye on in this regard is the debate over the new IOC member for Greece, a symbolically hugely important role for obvious historical reasons.
In what I am given to understand is currently a four-horse race, there look to be two heavyweight contenders.
If the nod goes eventually to Spyros Capralos, President of the Hellenic Olympic Committee, it will mean, among other things, that Sheikh Ahmad is likely to have got the better of this skirmish; if the choice is Isidoros Kouvelos, President of the International Olympic Academy, it would suggest that others have won the day.
Having won the 2022 World Cup as part of that still hugely controversial 2018/2022 simultaneous host selection process, it would be understandable if the Qataris were a tad uneasy about the direction recent events have taken.
The United States finished runner-up in that 2022 race and could hence be portrayed as the obvious substitute host should the initial decision get overturned in some way.
Powerful European football interests would, moreover, I suggest shed not the smallest tear if the tournament were moved to a location enabling it to take place in its usual time-slot during the northern hemisphere summer, avoiding the necessity of rescheduling the traditional European club season.
In the Qataris’ shoes, I think I would be relieved at early indications that FIFA’s new man has no intention of seeking to switch the competition without yet feeling completely reassured.