FIFA chief Infantino: disparaged yet indestructible
FIFA President Gianni Infantino gestures during a press conference at the Russian Football Union's headquarters in Moscow. (AFP)

KIGALI, Rwanda (AFP)— Disparaged and yet seemingly indestructible, Gianni Infantino is poised to start a third term at the head of FIFA on Thursday.

Infantino is for a second time running unopposed for the presidency of the world football's governing body which he has led since stepping into the vacuum created by the fall of his predecessor Sepp Blatter and his former boss at UEFA, Michel Platini.

This will give the 52-year-old a chance to bring to fruition the multiple projects he likes to launch out of the blue and sometimes abandons in the face of opposition.

Infantino, a lawyer, was UEFA's general secretary from 2009. He moved up in 2016 when he won an emergency election after Blatter's scandal-ridden fall the previous year just after winning a fifth term.

His goals, he repeatedly says, are to "restore the image of FIFA" and to "make soccer truly global".

The holder of both Swiss and Italian citizenship presents himself as the guardian of football's integrity and the champion of equal opportunities in the sport.

Yet in Qatar he brushed aside criticism of the host's human rights record by insisting he too was the victim of "discrimination" as a child of Italian parents growing up in Switzerland.

"I am not an Arab, I am not African, I am not gay, I am not disabled," he said.

"But I feel like it, because I know what it means to be discriminated against as a foreigner in a foreign country. As a child I was bullied – because I had red hair and freckles."

Infantino brought in maternity leave for players and introduced a three-term limit for FIFA president.

Most of all he has presided over a surge in revenue, which has allowed FIFA to both build its financial reserves and increase subsidies to national federations -- the voters in Thursday's elections.

"We have the money because in the new FIFA, the money doesn't disappear," he said in 2020, after meeting the Swiss attorney general who was investigating suspected collusion between Infantino and former Swiss attorney general Michael Lauber.

FIFA is a civil party in most of the proceedings against former football officials, including Blatter and Platini and the secret meetings raised suspicion.

Infantino was investigated for "incitement to abuse authority", "violation of official secrecy" and "obstruction of criminal proceedings".

Swiss prosecutors last Thursday dropped part of the investigation, into Infantino's use of a private jet paid for by FIFA.

A key to Infantino's strategy is increasing the size of FIFA competitions, which appeals to national federations by increasing the number of teams taking part and revenue.

It is an approach pioneered by his disgraced predecessors Joao Havelange, who was never opposed in an election after becoming president in 1974, and Blatter who took over in 1998.

Infantino tried and failed to increase the number of teams in Qatar from 32 to 48 but got his wish for 2026 in North America. The original plan was to increase the number of matches from 64 to 80, but on Tuesday, FIFA announced that it was adopting a format with 104 games.

A plan to play the World Cup every two years, floated in 2021, has been quietly forgotten after widespread opposition.

His proposal for a 24-team Club World Cup also failed to come to fruition in 2021 during the Covid pandemic.

In December, he raised his bid, announcing a 32-team tournament every four years starting in the summer of 2025.

He faces opposition from national leagues and clubs who are unhappy that he is filling the crowded calendar with FIFA competitions.

The international players union FIFPRO complained FIFA policies, including expanded men's and women's World Cups, "have created new conditions that further increase pressure on players' workload and their jobs."

FIFPRO also said the "decisions were taken unilaterally without seriously consulting, let alone agreeing, with the players."

Infantino responded by saying he was adopting a more consensual tone.

"We know that it is important to talk," he said promising "total respect" for the players, if he wins a new mandate.

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