FIFA president Gianni Infantino heads home on Wednesday morning after 10 days on the road in Africa. His whirlwind tour has been greeted with delight, scepticism and a touch of cynicism too.
Infantino organised a three-day symposium in Johannesburg to spell out his plans to football federation presidents. He held similar events in Paris and Doha in recent weeks and this closed door session accommodated the majority of African football associations.
It is the first time there has been this sort of intimacy in dealings between the leaders of world football’s governing body and its constituents, who usually only meet at formal Congresses and have had previous little opportunity for a forum to put forward their concerns.
It projects a sleeves-rolled-up approach from the new FIFA president, who last week marked his first anniversary of his election win.
He followed the seminar in South Africa with a charm offensive across the continent, visiting Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Rwanda, Chad, Ghana, Niger and then Mauritania, which saw him meeting heads of state, inspecting projects but also laying the groundwork for his re-election.
Infantino has a shortened term, effectively completing that of predecessor Sepp Blatter, and is up for re-election in two years. The cornerstone of his tenure has much the same approach that made Blatter so popular in the third world — extensive development aid. Infantino’s proposal to expand the World Cup to 48 nations has no critics in Africa where there will now be nine or 10 future participants rather than the current tally of five.
Infantino’s election has coincided with many new faces also emerging among the ranks of African leadership and he seems to have built a solid base of support already. The 46-year-old has many counterparts of a similar age heading African associations.
It was Africa who carried him over the line in last February’s election against Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa of Bahrain despite formal support for the Asian candidate from the Confederation of African Football.
The majority of African associations defied their confederation — not for the first time — to vote for Infantino and he has obviously sought to consolidate this with a tour that had touches of a royal event.
Issa Hayatou faces a challenge to keep hold of his Confederation of African Football presidency.
But the timing of the tour has also raised some cynicism. It comes just weeks before the elections for key places in the CAF leadership, including that of the president.
Infantino has not formally backed Ahmad, the Madagascan government minister who uses a single name and is running against long-standing incumbent Issa Hayatou, but his tacit support has been overwhelmingly clear.
Infantino went to a function in Harare last week that was designed to be a rally of support for the candidacy of the outsider, who is seeking to end Hayatou’s 29-year reign. The election in Addis Ababa on March 16 will be the third time Hayatou is challenged during his lengthy tenure but the first time there has been a real whirlwind of campaigning.
His previous opponents hardly garnered any votes but Ahmad has been promised significant support, including Nigeria and the 14-nation Council of South African Football Association, although whether the members are all going to vote for Ahmad is doubtful.
Hayatou remains the firm favourite to win but Infantino’s trip has emboldened the Malagasy, now running a much more high-profile campaign than when he first declared his candidacy in December.
No FIFA president has ever sided with a candidate in any past confederation election but the behind the scenes machinations have sometimes been quite furious.
Blatter used to have an Africa political consigliere and always a good sense of what was happening on the ground. Infantino, despite his sudden and unexpected ascent to power, seems to have understood quickly that Africa’s 54-members can prove a bedrock for staying in the job.