Reforms to revolutions: Fatma Samoura's impact on FIFA's legacy
It was not long ago in the Rwandan capital Kigali following FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s re-election by acclamation that Fatma Samoura yelled “I love you, president,” but the love story between the world federation and its current secretary general has come to an end.
Last Wednesday, FIFA, after months of speculation, confirmed that Samoura will be departing the global governing body at the end of 2023.
In a statement, FIFA called her a trailblazer who helped restore the organisation’s credibility after years of scandal under Sepp Blatter which culminated with #FIFAGate and the arrests in Zurich in 2015. Those claims are greatly exaggerated.
A United Nations veteran, Samoura broke the glass ceiling in 2016 to serve as FIFA’s first female and non-European secretary general. At Congress in Paris, Infantino bragged from behind the lectern that, indeed, she was ‘a woman’ and ‘black.’ She was a perfect fit for Infantino’s new FIFA, a PR smokescreen for an organization that was, in the view of the FIFA president, no longer toxic. Suddenly, FIFA had a woman of color in a key position.
In 2019, FIFA dispatched Samoura as ‘FIFA High Commissioner for Africa’ to Cairo to clean up the Confederation of African Football (CAF). It was a first by FIFA as confederations enjoy autonomy. Samoura was a questionable choice: she had a close relationship with Ahmad Ahmad and how could she possibly fulfill her duties as secretary general in Zurich?
During her regency, CAF’s $1 billion broadcast deal with French agency Lagardère Sports was canceled. Samoura fled back to HQ on the Zurichberg as resentment over her unilateral actions and FIFA’s interference grew across the African continent.
Back in Switzerland, Samoura became alienated. Articles 64 and 65 of the FIFA statutes hand the secretary general broad powers to run the organization and its administration on a daily basis, but during soccer’s endless Covid-19 crises, she did not tackle the game’s major issues but instead remained invisible. Except on social media.
She tweeted like there was no tomorrow -- from the Futsal World Cup, the Buhari Cup, the Arab Cup, and the Beach Soccer World Cup. At that last tournament in Russia, Samoura in tandem with the FIFA president claimed to be “working tirelessly” on efforts to get those at risk out of Afghanistan.
If she wasn’t on Twitter, she spoke about empowering women. On one such occasion, she featured in Cartier’s section at the Dubai 2020 Expo “celebrating women from all walks of life” alongside Christine Lagarde.
She often spoke about the role of women, but it was hard to see how she succeeded in her mission of empowerment. At FIFA, Samoura did not move when allegations of harassment against Miguel Macedo were brought to her attention, according to the New York Times.
Instead, it seemed she waltzed from five-star hotel to five-star hotel. It was no different during the World Cup in Qatar, where she spent plenty of time among the VIP -- or was it VVIP?
In an in-house interview, she said of Qatar, a country with a lamentable human rights record, that “People can consider Qatar as a conservative society, like my own country in Senegal. But let me tell you one thing: Qataris are the most hospitable people you can find on earth. The food is great. The tea is beautiful! And when you walk along this beautiful Corniche, you will see something that you have never seen before. You will see magic, you will see light, you will see flavour, you will see smiles.”
When asked during the World Cup about the death of a worker at a site of the Saudi Arabia team, Samoura refused to reply. She said: “I don't think that's appropriate...sorry, goodbye!”
At times, Infantino’s executive-style management left the perception that Samoura got sidelined. The FIFA boss accumulated more and more power, but to ease her pain Samoura received mind-boggling compensation with a financial package of around $2 million, including a $650,000 bonus, for 2022. In 2021, her base salary was $1,3 million. A conservative estimate suggests that Samoura will have cashed $13 million by the time she departs Zurich. In other words, she can wine and dine for the rest of her life at FIFA’s expense.
Off she goes then, but few in football will miss her.