By Brian Homewood
ATHENS (Reuters) – Barely one year ago, Gianni Infantino was best known by the football public as the figure who pulled balls from pots at European club draws while Aleksander Ceferin was a mystery outside his Slovenian homeland.
Today, the two men, both lawyers and both in their mid-40s, occupy the most powerful positions in international soccer, filling the vacuum after a corruption scandal swept away the old guard.
Infantino leads soccer’s governing body FIFA while Ceferin was on Wednesday elected as president of UEFA with a resounding win over Dutchman Michael van Praag. Both leaders have talked of more transparency and concentrating on developing football, although Infantino’s first few months in charge have been far from plain sailing.
If Sepp Blatter had had his way, the veteran Swiss would have led FIFA until 2019 when he would have stood down at the age of 83 after 21 years in the post. His place would probably have been taken by Michel Platini, UEFA president since 2007 and the heir apparent for a smooth succession.But the status quo was rudely broken by the corruption scandal which engulfed FIFA last year and led to Blatter and Platini both being banned by FIFA’s ethics committee.
Infantino, formerly Platini’s right-hand man at UEFA, entered the FIFA presidential race, initially as a stop-gap in the expectation of Platini’s return, but gained momentum and ended up winning February’s election. The rise of Ceferin, who was not involved with UEFA’s executive committee at all, was even more meteoric.
Elected as the head of the Slovenian football federation in 2011, he had not even been mentioned as a challenger until he announced in June that he was going to stand and already had the backing of 18 federations. The public declarations of support continued to pour in until he had well over the 50 percent needed to win the election, although the 48-year-old was cagey as to how it all started.
“It was my decision to run for presidency, when I’ve seen I have so much support it was much easier. For a new face to come to lead UEFA, obviously this is the right time now… you have seen what happened today.” He refuted any suggestion that his candidacy was the result of back-room dealing.
“I was never behind the scenes. People trust me and nobody behind the scenes can have 42 votes,” he said. In fact, Van Praag gave more clues about Ceferin’s success than the man himself. “He is young, he is a new face, he doesn’t come form the establishment,” he said, adding that Cerefin had also benefited from a bandwagon effect.
“People walk behind the music and Aleksander very cleverly arranged that a lot of countries expressed openly their support so people start to get the feeling he’s a winner.”
If Ceferin wants to know of the pitfalls that lie ahead, he need only looks to Infantino’s first few months in power. The Swiss was has already faced a formal investigation over private flights he took before finally being cleared of wrongdoing, with FIFA’s ethics committee saying they were not improper.
FIFA also faced more controversy after its Council, headed by Infantino, gave itself the right to hire and fire members of FIFA’s independent watchdog committees, a move which critics said stripped them of their independence. Ceferin recognized that he had a lot of work ahead of him. “Match-fixing is a problem, racism is a problem, security and safety in these times is a terrible problem,” he said.
“The gap between the rich and poor is wider, so we have a lot of work a do.”