Infantino: Football without the fans is nothing

After the whirlwind of his election on 26 February, new FIFA President Gianni Infantino stepped officially into his role three days later on the first of many Mondays at the Home of FIFA.

To mark his first day in the office, he sat down for an interview as he began life in Zurich to discuss his views on the format of the FIFA World Cup™, the use of technology in football to his relationship with the beautiful game as a fan. We could see how emotional it was for you when you were announced as the new FIFA President. What was the first thought that came into your head right there and then? Gianni Infantino: I think haven’t realised it completely yet. It was just… a mix. All the emotions that a human being can feel at the same time. I felt them all: happiness, pride, responsibility… The weight of the task you’re embarking on, but also the passion and the energy to do the right thing. So, really, just imagine everything you can imagine at the same time in the same second, to the point you don’t think of anything. You just feel. It was about emotion, like football should be.

Speaking of which, you are renowned as someone who has worked in football for years, but what about Gianni the football fan? How much importance did the game have for you, growing up? The football virus was injected into me when I was a kid, from my parents and my father in particular. I was a crazy football fan, following my team all over the place. I remember when I said, “I’m going to a game”, I’d prepare myself wearing jeans and the worst shirt I had. Now, when I sit to watch a game I have to wear a jacket and a tie. I think we need to change that and as leaders of the game we need to become a little bit more like fans and less like politicians. If we remember that we all started out as football fans, the game will become much better.

When you played regularly what was your position on the field? I was normally on the bench – and you saw me during our match on Monday , so you know why! Anyway, I liked to play as a striker, only I didn’t score many goals. In the end, I was really only playing because my mother was the one washing the shirts of my local team. This helped me to get a few minutes from time to time, when our team was already leading and I couldn’t cause too much damage. But still I had lots of fun playing when I was young, as I do now. What about your relationship with the FIFA World Cup? What are your first memories? My very first memory is** **1978. I was eight years old and I started to watch it on TV with my father. I remember Bertoni and Kempes in the final against the Netherlands. I remember the Italian national team, which started quite well with Paolo Rossi, Antonio Cabrini, new players. Then obviously the 1982 World Cup, when Italy won, was quite an experience for a 12-year-old boy. And I see this same passion now, I saw it during the 2014 World Cup. Switzerland is a very international country, so when you take your kids to school in the morning you have all the mothers, fathers and kids speaking about their teams – the English, the Algerians, the Swiss, the Germans. In these circumstances we see the importance of the World Cup, and we must never forget this. We must always protect this competition.

I love the game. I know what it means to travel week in week out to go and watch your favourite team.

And what specific ideas do you have for the FIFA World Cup? It’s no secret that I believe in increasing the World Cup to 40 teams. Forty teams is only 19 per cent of the FIFA membership, so it’s not that many compared to the continental final tournaments, which gather between 30 per cent and 100 per cent of affiliated teams. We give eight more countries the opportunity to participate, but many more countries the possibility to dream of participating; to play the qualifiers in a very solid way. Of course there are issues that we need to analyse and discuss, like: what impact does this have on the calendar? I think it’ll have no impact. But we need to look into these matters very carefully and seriously and then we have to move forward.

What about the other FIFA competitions? Of course the youth ones, for boys and girls, are critically important. So it’s also important to think about the age categories: whether we’re still using the right ones or if we need to go a bit younger. Also, we need to see if it makes sense to increase the size of the final tournaments or, in any case, to make sure that international competitions are staged locally, with the help of FIFA. Not every country can participate in a World Cup. Some countries will never participate or never even dream of taking part in one, be it boys’ or girls’, men’s or women’s. But they also need to play. FIFA has to be there and help them, because organising competitions is the basis of all that we do.

Can you share your expectations about some of the events coming up during your first year as FIFA President? We start, of course, with the qualifiers: a great celebration of football all over the world, with teams dreaming of playing in the World Cup in Russia. Then we have the Women’s U-17 in Jordan and U-20 in Papua New Guinea. It’s important to take girls’ football to these countries; to open them to new horizons. I’ll certainly be there and it’ll be a great pleasure to participate in these competitions, to show the world that we’re grateful to Jordan and Papua New Guinea, but also that we believe in them and in the impact that these competitions can have in these countries and regions.

Besides organising competitions, another centrepiece of FIFA’s mission is to develop football. What is the cornerstone of your ideas for development? I’ve been traveling a lot to each of the continents and visiting many countries and I’ve seen with my own eyes what the needs are. And I think we can and we should do a lot – and we can do a lot with actually very little. But, particularly, what we have to do is to invest in tailor-made programmes, because the needs are not the same in Bhutan, Madagascar, Switzerland or Paraguay. The needs are completely different, and we have to make sure that we target each of the 209 member associations specifically and that we help them to develop football in accordance with the needs that they have.

Is it fair to say that there is a need to increase the participation of players and former players in football’s decision-making processes? We need to listen to the players and involve them in our activities, not only in decision-making, but also in football development and social activities – because we have an important task in terms of social responsibility as well. We’ve seen that the former players love to participate in FIFA’s activities. They love to give something back to football, which has given them such a lot. We need to be able to include them and that’s why one of my priorities will certainly be to set up a legends team to shine for FIFA and with FIFA around the world. Another important engagement during your first days in office is the IFAB Annual General Meeting, whose agenda includes discussions on the use of video technology to assist match officials. What are your views on this topic? Well, technology is obviously an important topic that we need to analyse seriously. We’re in 2016 and we can no longer close our eyes to it. Goal-line technology is already a reality, so we need to look into the matter and carry out real-life tests, so to say, to see in which kind of circumstances technology should be used. Because it’s important, even crucial, to see what kind of impact it will have on the flow of the game. One of the peculiarities of football is its flow – it doesn’t stop, like many other sports where you have the time to look at videos. If the flow can be guaranteed, then we can see how technology can help the game. But we need to start with serious tests sooner rather than later.

But you do believe that there is a way to find this balance between using technology more heavily while not jeopardising the flow of the game? Definitely. I think technology evolves; it’s becoming better and better. So if we can get some help for the referees to take the right and just decision, this is part of transparency as well. And we need to be able to embrace this.

After the IFAB, there is the second FIFA Women’s Football and Leadership Conference on 7 March. What are your ideas for fostering stronger participation of women in football? We need to have a strategy ready for the development of women’s football. Not only football itself, but to have women as leaders in national associations, confederations and FIFA. With the reform process, this is now part of the statutes. That’s why 7 March is such an important date. And for women’s football, it’s like I said for development: we need to target each country according to their needs. It’s no good having a global strategy, because in Germany or the USA the situation is not the same as in many other countries. So we need to use the expertise of the Germans or Americans – to name but two – to help other countries develop with tailor-made programmes. With the will to develop women’s football that I feel everywhere in the world, I think we can achieve impressive results.

We spoke a lot about being a fan, and a lot of critics claim that there is an abyss between FIFA and the regular football fan. What message would you like to give them? I would like to tell them to trust us. To trust me, because I’m a football fan as well. I’m like them. I love the game. I know what it means to travel week in week out to go and watch your favourite team, because I did this myself many times. I know what it means to love football and follow a team. Football without the fans is nothing. We need the players and we need the fans, and I think these two elements have been neglected for too long. Now it’s time to change this. It’s time to bring them in and involve them in all that we do. ** **