The Swiss-Italian Uefa general secretary only entered the race when Michel Platini was suspended then banned for six years for accepting a “disloyal payment” from Blatter in 2011.
But Infantino, who spent €500,000 of Uefa funds on touring the globe in the runup to the election, triumphed over the controversial Asian Football Confederation president, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, in the second round of voting by 115 votes to 88.
The Bahraini had assumed his presidential bid would end in a coronation when he resolved to stand after Platini’s withdrawal in October but his campaign has been marred by strenuously denied allegations over human rights breaches and vote buying in previous elections.
After Infantino took a narrow 88-85 lead in the first round of voting, with the Jordanian Prince Ali bin al-Hussein in third place with 27 votes and the French former Fifa executive Jérôme Champagne in fourth with seven after the withdrawal of Tokyo Sexwale, he seized the initiative.
Infantino’s energetic campaign, together with Blatter-style promises to more than double the development money dispensed to Fifa’s 207 federations to $5m over four years, won the day.
“I want to be the president of all of you. I travelled through the globe and I will continue to do this. I want to work with all of you to restore and rebuild a new era where we can put football in the centre of the stage,” Infantino told the delegates after his victory.
“Fifa has gone through sad times, moments of crisis. But those times are over. We need to implement the reforms, we need to have good governance and transparency. But we also need to have respect. We will regain this respect by hard work and dedication, so we can again concentrate on the wonderful game of football.”
His pitch also included a boast that he had vastly increased Uefa’s revenues, promising to do the same for an organisation now staring at a $550m financial black hole. “It’s your money, not the money of the Fifa president,” he told the delegates to applause. “The money of Fifa has to be used to develop football.”
The 45-year-old, who has been at Uefa for 15 years and general secretary for the last seven, has promised to “bring football back to Fifa” but is faced with a huge task to restore its battered reputation.
The crisis set in motion by the decision to hand the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar in 2010 accelerated dramatically last May when US prosecutors unsealed an indictment alleging a “World Cup of fraud” and arrested a string of senior executives on money laundering and corruption charges.
Infantino becomes just the third Fifa president in 40 years personified by Blatter and his Brazilian predecessor, João Havelange, during which Fifa’s revenues soared but scandals involving World Cup tickets, TV rights and corrupt bidding races multiplied.
Blatter won a fifth term in May, despite a spate of arrests of Fifa executives amid $200m bribery claims. But days later he was forced to promise to stand down and then was banned from football for six years for making a £1.3m “disloyal payment” to his one-time heir apparent Platini in 2011.
Critics will point to Infantino’s previous loyalty to Platini and Uefa’s failure to embrace governance reforms itself, as well as match-fixing controversies in Greece and Turkey, as evidence that he does not represent the wholesale change required.
But the canny multilingual lawyer is likely to prove a more palatable frontman for Fifa’s desperate last-ditch reform attempts, drawn up by a combination of US lawyers and the audit and compliance committee chairman, Domenico Scala, than Sheikh Salman would have.
The Bahraini’s campaign was marred by persistent allegations that he helped identify athletes punished following 2011’s pro-democracy protests. He has denied the claims, admitting he chaired a committee convened for the purpose but insisting it met only once and conducted no formal business.
Following various dire warnings from Fifa’s veteran acting president, Issa Hayatou, himself once censured over his role in the ISL bribery affair, about the threat to the organisation if the “far-reaching and progressive” reform package did not pass, it was voted through by 89% of Fifa’s 207 members.
The reforms include term limits, transparency on pay, independent committee members and the replacement of the tarnished executive committee with a new, enlarged Fifa council that will set strategic direction but will not be responsible for commercial matters.
Huge legal costs, deserting sponsors, media criticism and low staff morale had led to Fifa being $550m behind its projected $5bn revenue target for the current four-year cycle, said the acting director general, Markus Kattner.