In an exclusive interview with TASS First Deputy Director General Mikhail Gusman, the FIFA Secretary General said that she is looking forward to the FIFA Confederations Cup and that she believes Russia will host the best World Cup ever.
— Your nomination to the post of FIFA Secretary General has stirred up a sensation. You are the first woman, the first African and the first Muslim lady to be appointed to the second-highest position in the world’s most representative organization. Why did you accept this invitation to come to FIFA made by President Gianni Infantino himself?
First, I am passionate about the game, I’ve been married to a former football player for 29 years, and my uncle from my mother’s side also participated in the good old days of football in Senegal. But more importantly, I decided to join this organization as Secretary General because I could see the results of the reforms approved in February.
The organization was taking a paramount shift with new reform programs, while the principle of human rights was at the heart of the mission. And this is very close to what I was also doing in the UN – protecting and promoting human rights and making sure that football is used as a tool to build bridges, to bring people together. This whole combination of facts really triggered my decision to join FIFA at the special juncture.
— You spent over 20 years at different institutions of the United Nations and worked with many different countries where the situation was terrible. How has this previous experience helped you at your current post?
First, before joining the United Nations where I spent 21 years, I’d worked in the private sector. As you know, the bulk of the revenue is drawn from sponsorship and commercial affiliates. This requires certain talents, and commercial talent is one of them. I think this is also one of the reasons that enabled me to come onboard. The second instance was when I first encountered FIFA, just after the genocide in Rwanda where people who had killed each other massively, one day decided to come together.
The project was sponsored by FIFA and the UNDP (United Nations Development Program) with the aim of trying to bring about an endurable peace in Rwanda. So this is when I really measured the power and influence that football can offer. And I spent all my life in countries that were torn by war, where conflict was a daily issue, along with famine and natural catastrophes, so we had to find creative ways of really bringing about changes and sustainable peace in these countries. So, every social tool is used.
Certainly, when I found myself in the dilemma to either join or not to join FIFA, I just recalled those times of war, when sport was used as a social tool and that FIFA, the number one organization for the World Cup, holds the biggest sporting event in the world.
I decided that I could take on the role of peace advocate in FIFA
And I am not disappointed because on a daily basis I use football in the operations in the field to bring about development, and not only the development of football, but also some positive social changes for real people and to empower women through football.
— FIFA underwent a major shake-up in recent years. Gianni Infantino was elected FIFA’s president in February 2016 and you were appointed Secretary General later, in May. How has FIFA changed since then? What did you have to do to set FIFA on the right track?
That’s true that FIFA went through a very difficult period. The first and most important thing and a good way of really showing the rest of the world that we were serious when we were talking about good governance in football was to make sure that the reforms were fully implemented. We started by making sure that our Status embraces human rights and Article 3 of the FIFA Status says that we do strive to protect and promote human rights.
The second special issue was that all the senior leadership within FIFA agreed to disclose their pay. So, the salaries (my, the president’s, and those of the council members) have been officially released. We also set up a compliance unit to make sure that we have better control over FIFA’s cash flows. But one determining aspect is that we are investing billions of dollars on quarterly basis through football. And this is really something that developing countries were looking forward to seeing as part of the reform.
This really means making football the centerpiece of everything we do. We have a long way to go, we are still facing some resistance, we need to explain to people what we mean by good governance in football, by greater transparency, and by streamlining the process in order to regain the trust of our partners and commercial affiliates. But I can tell you that today we are better than last year and next year we will be even better. And we are also embarking on a stronger policy where we would like to have better control over our finances.
All those projects are in progress. Moreover, it will give us even more possibilities to have a better control over our revenues because with those proceeds we invest in youth competitions, in women’s football, and in the great and expanded World Cup. And we definitely need to ensure that every single cent that we receive is properly spent toward developing football and toward the organization’s greater integrity.
— What about sponsors? Is this currently FIFA’s biggest challenge?
After the turbulent time we went through, we definitely needed to rebuild our image. We really needed to show people that we are serious when we talk about reforms. And we needed a few months after the new leadership took charge to really bring trust back. Two weeks ago, I was in China to sign a new agreement with Hisense and we are in negotiations with several international partners, but I cannot tell you anymore because until it occurs, we are not going to disclose them. But I can tell you one thing that before the FIFA Confederations Cup in June we will be having more commercial affiliates onboard.
— You’ve mentioned China that has impressed the whole world by spending a lot of money on players’ transfers. Famous players are also going to play for India. What is the influence of these two great countries on the world of football?
I travelled to China to talk about football. A determining factor was that they would like to project themselves when it comes to football development - it is not only the amount of money, but also the strong willingness of China as a nation. They have a project for a football academy that will involve millions of young people.
They also have a project to build 55,000 pitches by 2018, which only a country like China can achieve.
Yet, they have a long way to go, definitely, to become a national football power. This is possible if you’ve got firm willingness from the authorities, the means and somebody like FIFA who would believe that you can use the development of football to widen your experience and your know-how to the rest of the world.
As for India, we are going to stage the U-17 World Cup there in a few months and I will tell you about it after I come back. This is what I can tell you for the time being.
— What is your expectation of the Confederations Cup? This is not your first visit to Russia, you’ve seen the stadiums. What do you expect from the tournament here?
I expect that the Confederations Cup in Russia is going to be one of the greatest. We have got the eight strongest teams participating. And I have already visited the country several times to ensure that they get a good taste of what they can expect when they come here this year. And I am pretty sure that the FIFA Confederation Cup will really set the stage for the bigger World Cup next year.
What I can say about St. Petersburg is that everybody dreams about coming to this city one day, because of the cultural heritage
And we just hope that this new Confederations Cup to be staged here for the opening and final events will be something that will inspire more young people to follow to football. I visited the St. Petersburg stadium two months ago and now I can say there is huge progress in the pitch’s work. And I was very delighted to meet here with the famous Brazilian player Cafu
And with great football legend Alexey Smertin. He is our ambassador for the World Cup and also the RFU’s inspector on fighting racism in football.I am really looking forward to coming back to St. Petersburg when the weather is fine and you promised that the weather will be fine!
— No question about that!
And definitely people were questioning the security issues after what happened a few weeks ago in the metro. We assure them that the government is on top of the security. And the introduction of the Fan-ID was one of the measures that the government put in place to make sure that security gets all the attention that FIFA requires.
— President Infantino told me he expected the 2018 World Cup to be the best in the football history. Do you agree with him?
I totally agree with him. If you ask me why, I will tell you that first it is because of a strong commitment from the authorities here. That includes the 11 hosting cities, the LOC, and the government.
We really have a good relationship. We want this to be the number one World Cup, because Russia is a great nation that will be hosting one of the most beautiful games in the world. And it is right in the middle of this period of turbulence in the world, when people are looking forward to having some kind of relief. And certainly, the World Cup and the Confederations Cup represent good ways to really get some piece of mind.
People who come to Russia will see something really fascinating. They will get to know Russia more and will see its cultural diversity, and receive a warm welcome.
— Do you have any concerns about Russia’s preparations for the World Cup?
Like with any sporting event, where we expect millions of people to travel from overseas, we would like to make sure that their security is fully guaranteed and that the government’s promise to provide free transportation for all the fans coming to watch the games will be fulfilled.
We also hope that work at the 12 stadiums in the 11 host cities will be completed thereby offering no serious doubts about their level of preparedness.
And, finally, we just hope that the people who like football will come in droves to attend the games, knowing that when they leave this country it will be something that they will keep as memories for many years to come.
— The purchase of the championship’s broadcasting rights by Russian TV networks has not been settled yet. Do you see a possible compromise on this in the future? Would it be possible that Russians will not have the chance of watching TV broadcasts of the 2018 World Cup games?
We have been conducting daily negotiations. We’ve held discussions with TV networks, as you rightly know, for the bid for a tender and I cannot go into any further details, but I am very hopeful that we will find a compromise.
And we want to reassure the football fans that they will be in a position to see the matches and I think that this is the most important thing
We need these revenues because it means also that we will be able to fulfill our commitment towards funding the LOC budget. It is not for us, but for the benefit of the game.
— Many experts say that it was not a good decision in 2010 to give Qatar the right to host the 2022 World Cup 12 years before the tournament.
It was long before the new FIFA leadership came to power. We are working now very closely with the Russian and the Qatari LOCs in order to fulfill FIFA’s commitments. We are also working on the bidding process for the World Cup in 2026 and I would like to make sure that there is a lot of transparency.
— FIFA has some very important decisions for the future of football. For example, from 2026, instead of 32 teams competing in the World Cup there will be 48 teams. How will this change this championship?
We get 16 additional teams dreaming to one day hold up the trophy. It’s a opportunity for fans to interact with those from other countries. But more importantly, it will result in more revenues for FIFA, and more money to be invested in the world of football. It also offers prospects for countries who are doing good but have never had the chance to be exposed to the World Cup, to also yield a better result. Because the more competitions you have at a higher level, the more possibilities you have also to boost your team’s ranking. And our mandate is to expand the game, to protect its integrity, and also to make it available to all.
— So what do you think of the joint bid to give the 2026 World Cup hosting rights to three countries – the US, Canada and Mexico?
It will be a point of discussion during the next congress in May in Bahrain. And definitely when we decided not to limit the possibility of hosting the World Cup to one country in October 2016, we knew that more people, more countries and associations would be coming with the possibility of co-hosting in order to ease the burden in terms of investment and also in terms of infrastructure for the host-country.
It also creates the possibility for people to learn about more countries, and also for those participating in this World Cup to size up how well they’re doing judging by regional standards.
But more importantly it’s also for the fans around the world to have the possibility to become more exposed to other countries’ realities and cultures. But as of today, there was no decision taken on the 2026 World Cup, we just want to make sure that the process is fair and transparent.
— Are you concerned about the fact that no representatives from Russia, the 2018 World Cup’s host nation, are left on the FIFA Council?
Each member of the FIFA council has to go through an eligibility check. Deputy Prime Minister Mutko did not make it to the eligibility check because there is a new governance committee, which wants really to fulfill and to respect the provisions of FIFA’s new status where it was clearly stated that we should preserve political neutrality. And that was the decision from the review committee, which is totally independent. They are not FIFA members.
There are individuals that come from very high courts in Europe, in the US, in Latin America, in Africa who compose this body, and their decision is unquestionable. So we don’t think that there will be a negative impact from the fact that a representative of Russia won’t be sitting at the board because of the good relationship we’ve developed with the government, with the 11 host-cities and with the LOC. We can say really without any fear or any worry that we have already set the ground for a major event to take place this year and next year. So it shouldn’t be a major pre-occupation.
— You used to go biking, despite your father being very conservative, do you have time for this now?
No, no time for biking or swimming. Yesterday for example we were watching the Empoli-Milano game and then Juventus vs. Genoa.
— Football is very important, but it shouldn’t take all of your time!
Oh, you will have to talk to my husband. When you’re crazy about something, it’s difficult. But sometimes at least he allows me to watch something different. So I was at least able yesterday afternoon to watch the results of the French presidential election.
— You are one of the most powerful people in the football world. What does ‘power’ mean for you?
In fact, I don’t like to use the word ‘power’. I would prefer to talk about influence
And as a woman, we want to really expand the game at all levels. When I leave FIFA, I want to have a women’s competition that would be self-sustainable. Having a FIFA Women World Cup with enough sponsors so that we could start seriously investing in this football. We have millions of young girls from the age of eight who would like to have a career in football. But women’s football is a poor relative of football and it is very difficult for the countries who would really like to promote this game to collect additional revenues. So I hope that the sponsors will hear this message that we need to invest more in women, because we are equally important, and maybe we are not big stars today, but if we start investing today in the women’s game, it will definitely be something that will pay back in the future.