Gianni Infantino’s vision of football as a geopolitical tool is finding a welcome reception among world leaders, Simon Chadwick writes.
Ahead of the recent G20 meeting in Argentina, I decided to reread my copy of Tim Marshall’s best-selling book Prisoners of Geography, which examines how political decision-making is either constrained by or enabled by geographic factors.
The essence of Marshall’s arguments is that geopolitics has re-emerged as an important factor in determining the well-being of individual nations and, indeed, the world as a whole. Other commentators extend this notion of geopolitics, linking it to relations between countries and to systems of governance.
As such, geopolitics increasingly dictates all manner of policy decisions, ranging from the procurement of natural resources and the management of energy supplies, through to the development of industrial strategies and the promotion of human capital development.
In this sense, effective geopolitics is commensurate with safety, security, stability, well-being and prosperity.
Upon reflection, therefore, it should have been no surprise to see Gianni Infantino become the first ever FIFA president to address the world’s most powerful geopolitical talking-shop, the G20. During an appearance that took many people aback, Infantino spoke to the assembled political leaders about football’s power to change the world.
For many involved in the world’s favourite game, this line of argument is a well-rehearsed one (although avid readers will recall Ryszard Kapuscinski’s views that the opposite can also be true). Football has often been advocated as a means to promote social cohesion, improve public health and foster national identity. However, Infantino now seems intent on accentuating its importance as a geopolitical tool, a form of diplomacy and a way of building international relations.
We have known for some time that Infantino is adept at treading a fine line between competing agendas. During his time at UEFA, Europe’s football governing body, he was the power behind Michel Platini’s throne as the two of them sought to make good on electoral promises to smaller and less powerful European national football associations.
Simultaneously, Infantino was placating bigger and more powerful associations by growing commercial revenues (for example, by selling sponsorships).
His appearance in Buenos Aires was taken out of the same playbook: democratise football by promoting the interests of various countries across the world, whilst generating more money for everyone. Yet to achieve this, Infantino needs to promote football as a geopolitical entity, hence his glad-handing of Narendra Modi, Mohammed Bin Salman, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and others.
The likes of Saudi Arabia epitomise the geopolitics of Gianni Infantino: a passionate football nation, albeit one that currently has minimal impact upon the sport; oil dependent but cash-rich; and intent upon pursuing a national sports strategy aimed at diversifying economic activity whilst building global profile and presence.
The Swiss FIFA president consequently seems to have spent much of this year engaged in the not-so-gentle pursuit of Saudi Riyals, as part of his plan to relaunch the Club World Cup, build tournament revenues, and broaden-out football’s constituency of influence to non-European nations.
In turn, Riyadh’s partner in the rumoured deal is Japan’s SoftBank, a corporation that is working closely with Saudi Arabia on energy and technology mega-projects.
And then there’s the issue of Qatar, host nation of the 2022 World Cup. Since the small Gulf nation won hosting rights back in 2010, however, it has become embroiled in a regional feud with its near neighbours, most notably Saudi Arabia, as well as the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Reasons for the feud can be somewhat complex for outsiders to understand, although regional stature and issues of power are essentially the heart of the matter. Step forward Infantino and FIFA, with a proposal that 2022’s biggest global sports mega-event should be increased in size to 48 teams (up from the original 32).
The pitch from Infantino is again a common refrain: money and democratisation. Perhaps more importantly, his proposal also potentially provides an indirect solution to the impasse now strangling the Gulf region. Contractually, FIFA cannot deny Qatar hosting rights, though by pushing through an increase in participant numbers, the country will be unable to host the tournament alone.
The only way forwards for Qatar would be to share hosting rights with at least one other country, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE being obvious candidates. Of course, this would require a considerable thawing of local relations with Doha, though we now know that Infantino conceives of football as being able to change the world. Some observers have wryly commented that if the governing body can achieve this feat, then FIFA will be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Whether Gianni Infantino ultimately proves to be an accomplished geopolitician remains to be seen. Yet here is a FIFA president like no other, someone with a sharp sense of global shifts, economic power and political leverage. If ever there was a man or woman who epitomises this geopolitical era in sport, then surely it is Infantino.
However, it is important to recognise that Infantino is not alone on this stage. Many of those he is often seen fraternising with are also changing the very essence of what sport means and is. For instance, as the G20 meeting was taking place in Argentina, Cameroon was losing the right to host next year’s African Nations Cup, the result of problematic preparations.
The question now becomes what will happen to Cameroon’s relations with China. Stadiums for the tournament were being funded and constructed by Beijing as part of China’s policy of stadium diplomacy, whereby assistance was being provided in return for access to scarce natural resources – in Cameroon’s case, oil.
It’s uncertain exactly where recent developments leave the Central African nation, though what is crystal clear is that sport is no longer contested merely between competing athletes. Rather, it has become embedded in a global network of relationships based upon politics and geographic circumstances.
The geopolitics of Gianni may have a nice ring to it, but the football governor is but one of a growing number of influential actors on the world’s sporting stage. To find his co-stars, one needs look no further than the people he was rubbing shoulders with at the recent G20 summit.
This piece is published in partnership with the China Soccer Observatory at the University of Nottingham.