Gianni Infantino in close fight for FIFA presidency
Candidate still communicating with suspended former boss Platini
When Michel Platini wanted to avoid scrutiny as UEFA president, Gianni Infantino provided cover for his languid, often aloof boss.
Infantino is no longer the support act for the former France captain.
And by Friday, European soccer's top administrator could be FIFA president, the job Platini saw as his destiny before being banished from soccer in disgrace.
The 45-year-old Infantino is in a close tussle with Sheikh Salman to emerge from the five-man race as the new head of the world's most popular sport.
The most gregarious of the candidates, Infantino's challenge before FIFA's 209 members vote on Friday is to convince them he is an adequate substitute for Platini.
Officially, Platini is banned for the next eight years from engaging in any role in soccer as punishment for receiving an "unethical" payment of 2 million Swiss francs ($2 million US) from FIFA in 2011.
But Infantino, UEFA's general secretary, still consults with Platini.
"He is suspended from football related matters, but he is not suspended from speaking with people," Infantino said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. "So definitely I am speaking with him. We speak about many things."
Here is a closer look at Infantino's candidacy and election promises:
The Swiss-Italian, who is fluent in five languages, has spent 16 years at UEFA. With his distinctive bald pate, Infantino is recognized among soccer fans as the face of Champions League draws.
As general secretary since 2009, Infantino has been in charge of implementing Platini's policies.
Often that meant fronting up to explain and justify Platini's Financial Fair Play pet project, which incensed clubs like Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, who were fined for spending their owners' cash while chasing glory.
But under Platini and Infantino, UEFA survived the worst of the global financial crisis, with no topflight clubs going out of business and the upward financial trajectory of the Champions League maintained.
Infantino has been hands-on at UEFA, where Platini seemed disinterested in engaging in the politicking and left most news conferences to his No. 2. Though the FIFA presidency carries a loftier title, Infantino could find he has less power switching Nyon for Zurich in Switzerland.
Under reforms instigated by a FIFA reform committee that included Infantino, the presidency will become more of a figurehead position lacking the executive role Sepp Blatter enjoyed.
Instead the job of secretary general, which becomes chief executive, assumes more power. Infantino insists that he is not in the election contest as a means of securing that post under Sheikh Salman.
Infantino's manifesto was targeted not at elite soccer nations but smaller or emerging federations. The flagship policy was adopted from Platini: Providing an additional eight teams at the World Cup, pushing for a 40-nation competition by 2026. Infantino wants to prevent the tournament remaining the preserve of wealthy countries by allowing entire regions to share hosting duties.
Drawing from the playbook of Blatter, who was born in a neighbouring Swiss village, Infantino's cash pledges are at the heart of his manifesto promises.
Each of FIFA's 209 members will be offered $5 million to invest in development projects and running costs — a huge increase on the $2.05 million per federation from 2011-14 — and another $1 million, if required, for travel, which would be attractive to small nations in remote regions.
Additionally, each of the six confederations will be handed $40 million to invest in development projects, and their regional offshoots in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Central America can request another $4 million to organize youth tournaments.
Record under scrutiny
Infantino's trickiest period at UEFA was in the buildup to Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine, although the infrastructure was completed in time and concerns about widespread fan disorder never materialized.
But questions surround the 2007 vote, with a Cypriot whistleblower in 2010 alleging bribery. UEFA's response was to sue the Cypriot, and Infantino now dismissed them as "baseless allegations."
Rival FIFA candidate Jerome Champagne has criticized UEFA's handling of corruption allegations without naming Infantino, referencing match-fixing cases from 2011 in Turkey and 2015 in Greece.
UEFA and Turkish officials allowed Fenerbahce to avoid a relegation sanction. In Greece, Olympiakos was allowed by UEFA to play in this season's Champions League despite the club president being implicated in a fixing scandal last year linked to organized crime. UEFA entry rules require clubs not to have been involved in fixing matches.
"All the questions are answered," Infantino told the AP. "We have been as UEFA very instrumental in the fight against match-fixing, against corruption .... it's not fair to continue bringing these [allegations] forward."
Infantino has won the public relations contest, releasing a steady stream of endorsements from federations. But FIFA votes are won through behind-the-scenes lobbying rather than pronouncements in public.
The campaign was already counting on at least 69 votes before Infantino declared on Monday that he expected to received more than half of Africa's 54 votes.
"I will make an impact [in Africa]. I will have a majority of the African votes," the UEFA secretary general said in Cape Town on Monday on a short-notice visit to see where Nelson Mandela was jailed during apartheid.