FIFA president Gianni Infantino faced awkward questions on Friday after announcing a sponsorship agreement with a Chinese conglomerate which has links to his disgraced predecessor Sepp Blatter.
Infantino, who was elected as FIFA’s first new president since 1998 last month, chaired his first and last executive committee meeting on Thursday and Friday as football’s world governing body presses ahead with reforms designed to repair its tarnished image.
FIFA announced the Wanda Group, China’s largest commercial property company and the world’s largest cinema chain operator, had become a sponsor for the next four World Cups, up to and including the 2030 tournament.
Wanda Group chairman Wang Jianlin is reportedly China’s richest man, while Blatter’s nephew Philippe Blatter is president and chief executive of subsidiary company Wanda Sports Holding and Infront Sports and Media.
Infantino said the terms of the deal were commercially sensitive, but it is likely to be worth hundreds of millions of US dollars.
The Swiss insisted FIFA was conscious of the need to ensure all contracts were above board.
“I’m very well aware of the potential situations that can exist when you have partners who may have subsidiaries,” Infantino said at a press conference.
“In these circumstances it’s even more important to do the right thing and make sure the contracts we’ve signed are compliant with the highest standards.
“FIFA has undergone a process which makes FIFA oversensitive to these elements and making sure all the compliance requirements are fulfilled when we sign commercial agreements.”
Wanda Group also part-owns Atletico Madrid, the Spanish side which has been sanctioned by FIFA for signing under-age players. Atletico are contesting the ban.
Infantino played down the potential for conflict. “We have to make a clear distinction here between two things that have nothing to do with each other,” he said.
“One thing is a commercial partnership. The other side is the sports disciplinary side which is an independent side which is dealt with by the relevant FIFA bodies.
“These are two independent things and I’m happy these two things can be kept separate.”
Infantino was asked about the potential for China to host a future World Cup, with the bidding process for the 2026 tournament to be discussed in May at FIFA’s congress in Mexico City.
He said: “China is first and foremost a football country. It is also an economic powerhouse, this is clear.
“The investment the government and the Chinese football federation are making now in football will bring some important fruits in terms of the whole football development in China.
“When it comes to the organisation of a World Cup, we’ll have to look into the bidding process for 2026 and then onwards. We’ll see how and what the conditions will be, but the more countries can bid for the World Cup, the better it is.
“There are other great football events that maybe China can host in future. We’re looking very much at China but also other countries.”
Infantino was speaking after the final meeting of the 24-seat ExCo, which is to be disbanded and replaced by a 36-seat FIFA council as part of the reforms voted in at FIFA’s extraordinary congress on February 26, when he was elected.
One of the items agreed this week was the kick-off times for the controversially awarded 2018 World Cup in Russia. The tournament was voted on alongside the 2022 World Cup, which was awarded to Qatar, amid corruption claims which continue to be investigated.
Infantino could face pressure to publish the Garcia report which investigated the bidding process for the 2018/2022 tournaments in order to show FIFA’s apparent new-found transparency.
The ExCo also expressed its support for the request for restitution made by FIFA on Wednesday to recoup tens of millions of US dollars from corrupt officials.
Infantino said: “FIFA is moving from the defence to the attack.”
United States and Swiss investigators continue to make inquiries into FIFA-related corruption allegations, while Blatter has taken his appeal against his six-year ban from football-related activity to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
FIFA published for the first time full details of the remuneration awarded to Blatter and other leading officials on Thursday as part of a financial report which revealed a loss for 2015 of US dollars 122million (£84.2million). Blatter was paid 3.63m Swiss francs (£2.6m) last year.
Infantino says he still does not know what he will be paid, joked Blatter’s salary was a reference point and said his will be disclosed once it is determined.
“It is not yet a question of interest to me. I don’t know what my salary is yet,” said Infantino, who has had one short meeting with the three-person compensation committee.