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Can Gianni Infantino stop FIFA being the wrong kind of four-letter word?

ESPN FC's Gab Marcotti breaks down the ever-changing top 50 most influential people in football.
Gab Marcotti delves into ESPN FC's top 50 most influential people in football, pinpointing No. 16's "John" from Football Leaks.

He's the man charged with restoring faith and credibility in FIFA, which is about as straightforward as getting an aircraft carrier to perform a U-turn in a bath tub.

What's more, until less than two years ago, if Gianni Infantino nurtured ambitions over the world's game, it was a faraway prospect. At the time, he was general secretary of UEFA, the governing body of European football, and his boss, Michel Platini, was gearing up to run for the FIFA presidency.

At best -- most thought -- Infantino was an outside shot to run for UEFA president after Platini's departure -- or, more likely, head off into some consulting gig or a role with one of the many international organisations that proliferate in his native Switzerland.

Then came another seismic shock in FIFA-land, as Platini found himself under investigation by the Swiss Attorney General and FIFA's Ethics Committee for a "disloyal payment" he received in 2011. Europe needed a candidate, and Infantino filed papers to run, with the understanding that he would bow out if Platini were cleared. When the Frenchman was banned in January 2016, Infantino ramped up his challenge for the presidency, eventually defeating Bahrain's Sheikh Salman just over a month later.

An accidental president? Maybe, but he took the job he fell into and hit the ground running.

First and foremost, Infantino pushed through a series of reforms aimed at improving corporate governance and transparency, including replacing the Executive Committee with the broader -- and more diverse, especially when it comes to gender -- FIFA Council. In many ways, he also turned the position of president, which in the original vision was meant to be detached and big-picture, into an executive role, micromanaging the day-to-day running of the organization.

It's too early to tell whether this will free FIFA -- and, more accurately, the "system" that saw the same presidents get elected term after term largely by not fighting corruption in the confederations -- from its poisonous legacy. But there is no question that he is digging in and making waves.

The same can be said about Infantino's stated intentions to vastly increase contributions back to stakeholders -- funded by greater commercial revenues and tapping into the enormous cash reserves his predecessor, Sepp Blatter, kept under the FIFA mattress -- and increase the number of World Cup participants.

Infantino's supporters say it's a case of giving back to individual federations, many of which operate on shoestring budgets, and offering more of a chance to the mid-tier of nations who would otherwise only ever watch the World Cup on TV. His critics say he is being a populist demagogue engaging in pork barrel politics. Whatever your view, he is impacting the game to a degree rarely seen in the past.

The same applies to his aggressive push for video replay to assist referees. Although the video assistant referee (VAR) system is still being tested -- and came under criticism at the Confederations Cup -- even the willingness to trial it represents a sea-change for a hugely conservative organisation in which change, traditionally, came at a glacial pace, if at all, and tenure was measured in decades, not years.

Infantino is the son of immigrants from Calabria, in the toe of the Italian boot. His mother ran a newsstand, and his father worked on the railway. He was born and raised in Brig, just 6 miles from the hometown of his predecessor, Blatter. A trained lawyer, he joined UEFA in 2000, rising up to head the legal department four years later and becoming general secretary in 2009.

During his time there, Infantino micro-managed the organization, overseeing a boom in revenues both for the Champions League and the European Championship. He also helped implement Financial Fair Play, which, for all its criticism, reduced club losses Europe-wide by some 70 percent in its first three years while ensuring that revenue growth outstripped wage growth for the first time.

At a time when most other confederations -- particularly CONCACAF, CONMEBOL and the Asian Football Confederation -- were, as we discovered, embroiled in corruption, UEFA managed to remain relatively scandal-free (apart from Platini, whose charges related to his time at FIFA).

He talks a good game, but Infantino will be judged by whether he can get FIFA to stop being the wrong kind of four-letter word in the eyes of most. It won't be easy: His predecessor's legacy and the culture of entitlement at the top of the world's game remains strong. But whether he succeeds or fails, it won't be through inaction.

Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.

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