NEW YORK — Smithfield Hall is the official bar for the Big Apple fan clubs of Barcelona and Bayern Munich, and on Wednesday the place was packed with soccer supporters for the Champions League quarterfinal deciders involving both those famous teams.
Late in the first half, a shaved-headed man in a navy jacket slipped in and quietly walked to the back of the bar. Gianni Infantino, the newly elected FIFA president, was just like any other soccer fan in the city. He wanted to see the big games.
Nobody noticed him at first—seeing the FIFA president isn’t something you’re expecting to happen at an NYC soccer bar—but right after the halftime whistle a throng started approaching Infantino at his table in the back corner asking for photographs and a moment of his time.
“I have high hopes for you,” said one. “Good luck!”
“I’m going to miss you hosting the UEFA draws,” said another.
“Ah, me too.”
The affable Swiss-Italian spoke to them one by one in fluent English and Spanish and Portuguese. It was hard to imagine a similar scene in the U.S. with his predecessor, Sepp Blatter, especially since Blatter was unable to set foot in the U.S. without fear of being arrested.
Infantino is most definitely a soccer fan, but of course he is no ordinary fan. And he appears to know full well the enormity of the task that’s ahead of him: Leading FIFA into the 21st century and cleaning up an organization that has a toxic reputation, especially in the United States.
You can expect to see Infantino in the U.S. a lot more often than Blatter, and not just because of Blatter’s pesky getting-arrested issue. The U.S.’s influence on FIFA is at an all-time high. The U.S. Department of Justice’s sprawling investigation led by Attorney General Loretta Lynch continues sending shockwaves through global soccer. FIFA has spent millions of dollars on American lawyers and public relations professionals.
U.S.-based FIFA sponsors are demanding reform, and U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati played a major role in steering the second-round votes Infantino needed to the new president on election day in February.
Earlier on Wednesday, Infantino spoke to SI.com for 40 minutes on a wide array of topics, from his early accomplishments as FIFA president to his appearance in the Panama Papers, from his stance on women’s soccer to the dramatic differences in World Cup prize money for men and women, from how to make sure FIFA development money goes to the right projects to his plan for expanding the men’s World Cup from 32 to 40 teams.
In the process, Infantino broke some news. He’s open to the ideas of a co-hosted World Cup 2026 between the U.S., Mexico and Canada, as well as a new FIFA Women’s Club World Cup and a regular Copa América featuring South American and North American teams that would rival the European championship (He even liked the idea of creating a global FIFA TV channel).
Here’s our interview, lightly edited for length and clarity:
SI.com: You’ve been in office for nearly 50 days. It’s early, but what do you see as your main accomplishments so far?
Infantino: We are early, but I still believe we have been able to do already quite a lot of things. The things I’m most happy about is I said I wanted to bring football back to FIFA and FIFA back to football. So the first thing that I organized on a Monday—and it was bloody cold!—was a football match. But it was great fun. And to have so many of these star players come, I wouldn’t have dreamed about it. I remember the Friday night after the election, I said I wanted to do this on my first day in office. So I was asking my colleagues: Bring your shoes on Monday, we have to play football. Then on Saturday I called a couple, and they called each other, and on Sunday about 20 top players, men and women, came and it was great.
That’s a bit anecdotal. More importantly, my first meeting outside Switzerland was the IFAB meeting, where I could focus on football and where we took some really historic decisions. Video refereeing is obviously the most significant topic, and it’s been discussed the last 40 years or since TV exists. And for the first time now we really gave the go-ahead to test it in a serious way. It will not be easy, it will not be something that happens from one day to the next, but if we don’t test it seriously—and in competitions as well—we’ll never know how it works.
So we did accept this. We have received requests from 13 different countries in four different continents to make these tests, so we are now finalizing the protocol so that all these experiments are done exactly the same. Then we’ll see how we can use video technology to help the referee on the pitch. So: A football decision, and a decision the fans were expecting.
The other one: The triple punishment, the famous red card where the goalkeeper commits a foul after 10 minutes and a penalty, which changes the match. This has also been changed.
Now there will not anymore be an automatic red card if the goalkeeper goes for the ball. There will be a yellow card and a penalty, which we think is fair and which everyone in football has been asking for for many years.
And finally: The fourth substitution during extra time. For the health of the players it can be important, for the game itself it can be important, especially in extra time. Also when you have tournaments where you play every three days a match. So these are things which can have an impact on the game. I was very happy for this.
The second important meeting that I participated in in Zurich was about women’s football and women in football. Billie Jean King was there, a lot of discussions, positive ones. Women’s football and women in football, which are two different things but are connected, are a priority for me, obviously. We need to develop football and we need to focus on women’s football and having more women in our administration.
These were the two first things. Then we had an executive committee meeting where we presented the first steps of the reforms for transparency and the decision-making process. It’s not anymore that the executive committee will decide on commercial contracts. That’s quite historic in FIFA. This was one of the issues which created a lot of the problems that FIFA faced in the past. It’s finished, over.
It’s not anymore the executive committee—or the FIFA Council, as it will be called—taking the shots on the commercial contracts and on the distribution of revenues for the contracts. The administration for the distribution will be a specific committee that will be independent members in the development committee, in the finance committee. These are all things which in 111 years in the history of FIFA have never happened.
So now we’ll have independent external people who are in because we have nothing to hide. A new governance committee will be created with personalities from all over the world. So all these things have been presented and are put in place now. I think we have done some interesting things to start with.
SI.com: To people who said: “This guy Infantino is the exact same as Michel Platini,” it strikes me that video-replay review is not something Platini would ever have endorsed. And you endorse it, correct?
Infantino: Yeah. Definitely.
SI.com: So you are not the same person as Platini then?
Infantino: Well, he is a much better player than I am (laughs). I’ve been working with Michel Platini for nine years at UEFA, and we had a great relationship. But I think it worked well because everyone has his own personality, his own strengths and weaknesses, and they are completely different. Now I am the president of FIFA, and I bring in my vision, my views, and I’m trying to convince all the others that we have to move forward. We have to think fresh. I don’t know if video technology will work or not, because it will have an impact on the flow of the game, and the flow of the game I think is the key for the success of football. But we need to test it. We need to see how it works, if it works.
SI.com: Let’s talk about a topic that everywhere in the U.S. right now: Equal pay for equal work by men and women. President Obama just spoke in support of the U.S. women’s wage complaint against U.S. Soccer. Hillary Clinton has done the same thing. The biggest difference between the U.S. men’s and women’s players’ income is tied to FIFA’s World Cup prize money. The most recent men’s World Cup winner got $35 million in prize money. The most recent Women’s World Cup winner got $2 million. Why is there such a big difference in prize money? And do you think that should change?
Infantino: Well, today there is such a big difference because the prize money—which for me is a different topic than the salary or the pay—but the prize money today is linked with the revenues that are generated. So for me, while I understand and respect the position in the U.S., women’s football in the U.S. is not yet comparable to what women’s football should be around the world. So what our task must be is to develop women’s football, to invest much more. Of course the adjustment of the prize money goes with that as well.
It’s a process. But we need to make sure that we can lift up the popularity of women’s football all around the world to make sure that we don’t focus only on one or the other country and forget all the others. In the same way as it was done the last 100 years for men’s football, because this also has been a process. We have now to embrace this process for women’s football, to see how we can foster the top but also the base of women’s football.
One of the things I’m advocating at FIFA is the creation of a women’s football division, a specific division within FIFA to focus only on women’s football development, including the commercial side, the competition side, the grassroots side. With this we can increase everything, including the prize money. But this discussion should not be held for me in isolation.
It’s a complex, big topic. We need to focus on it and develop it and make further steps. As for the U.S., I’m sure that [U.S. Soccer president and FIFA Council member] Sunil Gulati will find the right words and the right solutions in discussing the ladies. I’ve been in Vancouver for the final of the last Women’s World Cup. It was fantastic. Big congratulations to the U.S. team. It’s amazing the work that is done here, and this should be an example for the rest of the world.
SI.com: So you are of the opinion that revenue generation should be a factor in how much men and women are paid?
Infantino: Definitely it should be a factor. It should not be the only factor, and we shouldn’t reduce it to that by all means. But it has to be a factor. It has to be evaluated. Because it’s the only way that we can grow the image and the popularity of women’s football.
SI.com: The reason I ask about revenue production is that one of your big campaign pledges was to tap FIFA’s $2.6 billion in profits from men’s World Cup 2014 and significantly increase FIFA’s development funding to $5 million every four-year cycle for every national association in the world, no matter how small it is. Now the small countries are not producing the revenue to be treated equally on how much FIFA gives out to them money-wise.
How is that different from payment for women’s players and their revenue generation?
Infantino: Well, these are two different topics. We have to develop football all around the world. And of course there might be particular unique situations of very, very small countries, but on the other side you have very big countries as well who arguably need more support than the small ones. At some stage you have to make an arbitration, you have to take a decision, you have to see how you can help the growth of football in the best and most efficient way. And what you have to do as well is to invest and make sure you invest the money into what is really needed in that particular country, no matter how big or how small that country is.
So for me these are two separate topics which don’t exclude each other either. Because if in a particular country the focus is on developing women’s football, then a big chunk of this $5 million could very well go into the development of women’s football in that particular country. So I think we need to really acknowledge that FIFA is a worldwide organization composed of 209 countries or member associations. And they are all very different from each other. And there is of course no way you can be perfect with everyone. But at least you can do something which helps every association in the development of football. And for me, the development of football includes boys and girls.
SI.com: Do you support the founding of a women’s FIFA Club World Cup?
Infantino: That’s an interesting idea. I don’t know how far the elaboration of the details has gone. These are things that need to be discussed and analyzed in detail. But as a matter of principle, anything that can boost the development and popularity of women’s football I’m favorable toward. So a Club World Cup is a good idea.
SI.com: I think a women’s Club World Cup might be more competitive across the board right now than the men’s Club World Cup, considering where the women’s club game is in the U.S. and Europe.
Infantino: And in Asia. That’s right. And we need to create events as well for women’s football. Events that focus the attention. The Women’s World Cup is great. We have been able to do a little bit in UEFA in the past with the women’s Champions League, which is slowly growing has become quite a nice event. So we need to think out of the blue as well.
SI.com: I like it. In many ways, your campaign promise to increase development funding to $5 million per cycle per country was straight out of Sepp Blatter’s previous playbook as far as campaigning. It’s not a bad thing to give money to countries, but I look at our own region here, CONCACAF, and see that earlier this year FIFA withdrew $10 million in funding due to financial mismanagement in CONCACAF.
On Tuesday, the president of the Caribbean Football Union, Gordon Derrick of Antigua and Barbuda, failed to pass his integrity check for the CONCACAF presidential election. How can you be certain that this $5 million per country will go toward the right soccer projects and not into the wrong hands?
Infantino: Well, we need to make sure that the money is invested and not distributed. I think that’s the key difference. It’s not that difficult or complicated to make sure that an association presents a concrete project. It’s not that complicated to assess that concrete project and to make sure that the investment is done in order to fund that concrete project. So if an association tells you they want to build a pitch, we are speaking here for a majority of countries about basic things. Pitches. Infrastructure. Offices. Lighting.
When I was in Africa, they were telling me: Yeah, we have a pitch, but during the day we can’t play because it’s too hot, and at night we can’t play because we don’t have lights. So if somebody tells you that he’s building a pitch or a lighting system for the pitch, you can assess the costs—FIFA can pay the costs directly, for example—and make sure that if somebody tells you he builds a pitch, he builds a pitch and not a swimming pool. So for me it goes with the measures that we will enact in order to assist and then control the associations so that the money is going into football projects. So if we do that, we will have done the right thing and not just throw money out the window.
For me, and I said it during my campaign, what should FIFA do with the money if not funding the development of football? If you travel around the world, especially in terms of infrastructure and equipment, there are so many countries who are in deep, deep need of everything. Ethiopia has 100 million people living there. I’ve been there. South Sudan, 12 million people.
I’m sure with our financial incentives we can help football to develop in the countries by being much more present as well. So it’s not only I send you the check and then in five years I will come to see if you really did what you promised. No. We have to be there and to assist the associations to do it.
When FIFA blocked the last few months some money which was paid to confederations and some national associations due to mismanagement in the past, this for me is also a failure of FIFA to some extent. Because I tend at first to trust the people. For those who fail, there will be zero tolerance, they have to leave football. But I think that we can also as FIFA be much more present to help the associations, to channel the investments made by FIFA into the right places.
If we do that by increasing the development funding by also by increasing the presence of FIFA in the different countries in terms of assistance, then we can make sure that the money goes to the right place.
SI.com: By what year do you want the FIFA congress to vote on the host country for World Cup 2026?
Infantino: I think realistically it will be in 2020, six years before. But we have to start the process already now after this congress [in Mexico City next month] to start the consultation phase. We need to define a couple of things. Number of teams, for example. Number of venues, which goes for the number of teams. The question of whether co-hosting or not is something good. I think it is, personally. The relevance of the famous technical report [on potential World Cup host suitability] that is done, which for me must have relevance.
SI.com: So that will matter now?
Infantino: Definitely. It has to matter. I’m not a dictator so I don’t impose things, but I can convince. It’s clear. If you do a technical evaluation, it must have a result. The result must be to exclude those bidders who don’t fulfill certain requirements, or to keep the best ones. So when the vote is made, you go to one of the two or three countries who have presented the best bids.
SI.com: You just mentioned that you support the idea of a co-hosted World Cup. The U.S. is expected to bid for World Cup 2026. Just this week the head of the Mexican FA said Mexico would like to host that World Cup as well. The Canadians have expressed some interest too. Would you be in favor or willing to listen to the idea of a shared World Cup between any combination of the U.S., Mexico and Canada?
Infantino: Personally, yes. Of course, the U.S. could organize a World Cup on its own. Everything is here. You could organize a World Cup tomorrow probably if you want. The U.S. is a continent more than a country. Canada has just organized a Women’s World Cup. Mexico has already organized two World Cups. So I think probably these three countries could organize a World Cup on their own. Having said that, I’m very open to considering joint bids. I’m recently coming from an organization [UEFA] that has just awarded the European Championship in 2020 to 13 different countries and 13 different cities. So everything is possible. For me the World Cup is such a huge event that the more people you can include in the dream, in the organization, the better.
SI.com: Which brings me to your proposal for expanding the men’s World Cup from 32 teams to 40 teams. How would that even work? Would you have eight groups of five or 10 groups of four?
Infantino: Either. That’s something that also needs to be assessed and evaluated in detail. You can organize a World Cup with 40 teams with eight groups of five, first two [advance] and then you have the same 16-8-4. Or with the groups of four with the first ones qualifying and the best second ones. Whatever format you choose at the end of the day, if the idea of 40 teams will become reality then I think we’ll have done something positive for the development of football. We don’t have to hang everything just on the format discussion.
Of course, 16 or 32 or 64 teams is the kind of easiest format to understand. But the World Cup is more than just a competition. It is really the No. 1 event in the world of the No. 1 sport in the world. And we have to acknowledge that today football has become truly global. It’s no more just a question of Europe and South America. It is global. In the last World Cup England and Italy have been kicked out by Costa Rica. So much for those saying the quality won’t be there to have eight more teams.
I’m speaking out of the experience in UEFA of increasing the size of the European Championship from 16 to 24, for which UEFA was criticized in the beginning as well, saying the qualifiers will be extremely boring because almost half the teams in Europe qualify and so on. The result was the exact opposite. The qualifiers have been as exciting as never before. Why? With teams like Albania or Iceland, who never qualified but qualified to teams like the Netherlands, who always qualify but did not with 24 teams.
Why? Because suddenly almost all the teams, except maybe for the really small, small ones, they started believing in their chance. So they started to play matches in a different way, with a different mindset. They started to play in order to win, in order to qualify. And this has created a great excitement. Even the group with Germany, until the last round the Germans who are the world champions came under some pressure because all the teams played their matches. So it created not only a great effect for those who ultimately qualified, but also for many more who played their matches in different ways. So you not only give the chance to eight more countries in the world to play the World Cup, which means the population of eight countries. Which means maybe as well the regions around these countries to participate in such a big event like the World Cup. For the popularity and the development of football this is worth a lot. It really created a whole new dynamic for many more countries and regions in Europe for the Euro. It will create it in the world for the World Cup, to be part of such a big event.
On the commercial side, more matches also means more revenues. We will have to see how much this will be. In Europe it was quite substantial. But I think it would be a good development.
SI.com: We have a special Copa América starting in the U.S. on June 3 with 16 teams from South America and North America. I’ve always supported the idea of a regular combined Copa América that would replace the old Copa América and give the Americas a tournament to rival the Euro. It makes sense for CONMEBOL, which needs more teams to get to 16. It makes sense for CONCACAF to be involved. But one big stumbling block would be FIFA’s willingness to approve a regular tournament involving two confederations. Would you be willing to support a regular combined Copa América in the future?
Infantino: Alexi Lalas disagrees (laughs).
SI.com: Yeah, he and I disagree on this one. It would be great for the U.S. and Mexico and other CONCACAF nations to have a big tournament between World Cups like the Euro to provide a real test and accountability for coaches and teams. My idea would be to have the combined Copa América the year after the World Cup, and if CONCACAF still wanted to host a Gold Cup a summer or two before the World Cup it could do it.
Infantino: It could certainly not be in addition to the [current] Gold Cups and Copa América, because the calendar is already congested. But why not? If the two confederations think it’s a good idea to have an event, you would have 10 South American countries and six from CONCACAF. It could be nice and more competitive. It could have a certain impact. I’m in favor of whatever helps the development of football. If it is felt in this region, the Americas, that it can be beneficial, why not?
SI.com: I have a question about the Panama Papers. My sense right now is that we need to take the Panama Papers seriously, but just because someone’s name appears in them, whether it’s yours or Lionel Messi’s, isn’t evidence of any improper behavior. Authorities are looking into it further right now, but I do have a question: Why would your previous organization, UEFA, have sold TV broadcast rights with your signature on them to a company that had no ability to broadcast something?
Infantino: Well, we did a tender process. Team Marketing did it on behalf of UEFA. It’s secondary rights, which is maybe important to know. The main rights were sold to ESPN, again based on a tender process. And for the remaining rights they were again put to tender in each individual country. In Ecuador the broadcaster, Teleamazonas, made the highest offer out of two offers. And Teleamazonas also at the same time said our exclusive buyer is Cross Trading. So the contract actually foresees already both parties. So it’s not that we sold to a company who is not a broadcaster. This company was simply acting as the exclusive buyer for TV rights, not only for the Champions League TV rights but for all TV rights of Teleamazonas in Europe.
Team Marketing was notified about that. A tender process has been done, fully openly. Team Marketing in charge of that made the recommendation. They are paid by UEFA for that. They are the experts. They said it corresponds to market rate. They said this was the highest offer and they recommended to UEFA to go with the highest offer. Everything was documented. And further evidence that this is the process that UEFA and Team Marketing followed all over the world is the fact that for the subsequent cycle again Teleamazonas made an offer. Somebody else, Televideo, made a higher offer, and the recommendation of Team Marketing and finally the signature on the contract was done with this other broadcaster, Televideo, which made the higher offer. When you do these kind of processes in a completely open and transparent way, then there is simply no issue about that.
The fact that my name was on this contract, it could have been any other director. We had at the time in UEFA I think seven directors who had the signatory power depending on availability. Two directors would sign such contracts. It happened to be my name. But this follows a thorough process where I think you cannot do more than that at this time as far as UEFA is concerned than following the process and the recommendations.
Team Marketing negotiated all the contracts. That was never done with the involvement of UEFA. So at the end of the day, the process was clear.
If after the conclusion of the contract those who have concluded the contract with UEFA did something which is illegal or which is even criminal, then they have to be accountable to justice for that. That’s very clear.
SI.com: When we spoke in Antigua during the FIFA presidential campaign, you told me it’s not a bad thing if FIFA makes more money, it’s a good thing. I agree with that, but I’ve always had a question. Why doesn’t FIFA start a global FIFA TV channel? You could put World Cup qualifiers from around the world on it and other content from previous World Cups, etc. I would pay money for that, and I know lots of people who would around the world. FIFA could earn a lot from that.
Infantino: That’s an interesting idea. What we did in Europe was to centralize the rights, and it has been really successful. The experience there has been exactly what you say: The individual countries selling the rights before, they were focusing on their own markets without third markets. And there are a lot of fans around the world who are interested in watching top-level football matches. Qualifiers are top-level football matches, and it’s a pity they are not broadcast all around the world. Now to create a TV channel and so on, I don’t know if Fox would be very happy about that (laughs). But that’s certainly something that should be looked into.
SI.com: Where are you in the process of choosing a general secretary for FIFA?
Infantino: Well, we defined the profile of the position, and the process has started. I don’t have any predetermined name or person in my mind. But we will assess it and take the time that it needs. It won’t be a long time. By the summer it should be clear. I am expecting to see a few candidates and to bring a recommendation to the Council from my side.
SI.com: The reputation of FIFA, if we’re being honest, is not good with the U.S. public right now. Nor frankly is the reputation of the FIFA presidency due to your predecessor. That’s not your fault. But people here don’t really know much about you yet. How do you fix FIFA’s reputation here in the United States?
Infantino: By showing with facts rather than with words that I am a true football fan, to start with, that I’m genuinely interested in running this organization in a transparent way, a modern way, a professional way. That I’m genuinely interested in bringing people to speak about football when they speak about FIFA. This has to go through the whole reform process that we are implementing now in terms of transparency and good governance. But these are things which go without saying. We have to show with facts that we are doing it. And once we are doing it, and we have started now, we can again focus on speaking about football. When people start again associating FIFA with football, then we’ve won the trust of the people back. I expect people to judge me and my actions with the results of what I’m doing—and not with any other happenings that other people did maybe misusing FIFA’s name in the past.