It has been almost two years now since Bjorn Vassallo has left the Malta FA to accept the offer of FIFA president Gianni Infantino to take up the role of Director of Europe at the world governing body in Zurich. Valhmor Camilleri spoke with Vassallo on his new experiences and the challenges facing Maltese football....
Bjorn Vassallo has left the Malta FA to accept the offer of FIFA president Gianni Infantino to take up the role of Director of Europe at the world governing body in Zurich.
Valhmor Camilleri spoke with Vassallo on his new experiences and the challenges facing Maltese football....
As Director for European Member Associations, Vassallo has been responsible of all 55 federations forming part of the UEFA confederation. His role entails to oversee the overall relations, development projects and governance in each federation as well as ensuring that each is compliant with the statutory framework and the financial terms requested by FIFA.
“In terms of vision we have to ensure to promote the game of football, protect its integrity and bring the game to all,” he said.
“In a few words we could not do this if FIFA did not go through an approval of landmark reforms and transformational restructuring to optimise the world body’s operations, enabling the new FIFA to lay the necessary groundwork to more effectively grow the game, enhance the football experience, and build a stronger institution.
“Above all FIFA has pledged to accountability, transparency, and inclusivity – principles that are essential as FIFA needed to regain trust with its partners and stakeholders. It is also very worth stating that the new operating model puts structures in place to ensure that problems of the past are not revisited.
“Therefore today, only after a few years of a new administration, I can responsibly say that FIFA is fit for purpose.”
“Although we have made strides forward, there are and there will always be challenges, especially keeping in mind that FIFA is made out of 211 member associations from all parts of the world,” he added.
“We have members from six confederations that are completely different to each other with contrasting traditions, nonetheless our book of regulations is standard, and the one-size fits all policy in regulations, to try and work on the same level playing field with all federations, even though they don’t have the same standards of practice, is not easy.
“So to this end we’re doing exchanges of best practices, using Euro expertise, to try and help these associations to improve the way they manage the game at all levels.”
Vassallo emphasised that another big challenge FIFA faced in the last few years was the reform of the game’s regulations and the introduction of VAR technology.
“The introduction of Video Technology has had a very positive impact on the game of football,” Vassallo said.
“The general feeling has been very positive as everyone understand that VAR has made the game more fair. The players today understand that they can no longer cheat as we have the technology that will keep an eye on their behaviour on the pitch and if the wrong decision has been taken we have the tools to change it.”
The 2018 World Cup has turned out to be one of FIFA’s major triumphs this year as despite all the scepticism surrounding Russia’s ability to host such a major competition, the tournament was labeled as one of the best editions ever organised.
“The 2018 World Cup has managed to beat the negative perception carried over the years that Russia was a hostile country ,” Vassallo said.
“This year’s World Cup has been a great advert for the game and FIFA has managed to provide an outstanding product, both on and off the pitch.
“That materialised through Russia’s sound investment to ensure it delivered on the promises it had made when it initially presented the bid to host the tournament.
“The 2018 World Cup has restored more credibility to FIFA. By means of organising world-class competitions, we can attract the resources necessary to fund our work all over the world, therefore this first ever World Cup for the new administration was importantly crucial.
“FIFA now can maximise on community impact and play an active role in our global reach to continue promoting football as a vehicle for social development. This was made possible through the expertise of very competent FIFA staff that have been able to bring the best out of a major tournament from a commercial point of view.
“Surely, the 2018 World Cup has helped to put FIFA back on track and now we look forward to continue working towards other important milestones such as the biggest transfer system reform since the Bosman ruling in 1996, review of senior and youth competitions and the enhancement of digitalisation in football.”
In the last few weeks, Maltese football has been rocked by controversy following the news that the Premier Division Standing Committee had agreed to present a proposal to the Malta FA Council that would see the number of overseas players in the top flight going up from seven to 11.
It’s a too big decision to go for 11 foreigners without comparing how football was before, how it is now and where we want to go in the next few years
The proposal was met by huge opposition by the football authorities in Malta with MFA president Norman Darmanin Demajo stating that he will do all in his power to ensure the motion will not be approved while the Malta Football Players Association warned that such a proposal could kill the dreams of hundreds of nursery players.
Vassallo has called for calm between all stakeholders and said that it would be wise that before any decision is taken on the issue, one commissions a thorough study on the impact the rule of having seven overseas players in a Premier League team had on Maltese football before any new rulings are introduced.
“Norman is always frank in what he says and as an MFA president he is obviously entitled for an opinion on the matter. Nevertheless, under his watch, whenever there was some kind of dispute, he always gave ample space for an open dialogue and promoted win-win situations.
“I’m certain it will be the same this time. In the MFA of today you cannot but not recognise the effective managment style and this gives me reassurances that things are dealt with in the proper way... the professional way,” Vassallo said.
“Going back to the matter, when two seasons ago we reformed the regulations regarding the players’ status, there was an extensive dialogue between all stakeholders of the game during which we analysed the pre-set plan, made the necessary changes before it was implemented as we sought to find the best interest of Maltese football,” Vassallo said.
“When we say the best interest of Maltese football we’re not only referring to the Premier Division. This PDSC motion will have an effect not only on the top flight and other domestic leagues but it will also effect the grassroots, the young players, the clubs and the national team.
“Therefore in my opinion, there needs to be a serious discussion and dialogue between all parties based on good reason. When the PDSC will finally present it’s motion, the MFA must start this discourse to establish the justified basis on why local football should go from seven to 11 overseas players.
“If it was up to me to decide, I would go one step back and commission a study to see what impact the decision of increasing the number of foreigners from three to seven had on Maltese football.
“It would be good to discuss the results of such an analysis because in my opinion it’s a too big decision to go for 11 foreigners without comparing how football was before, how it is now and where we want to go in the next few years.
“But this long-term planning should not only be attributed to the foreign or home grown players issue.
“Nowadays we all work on attainable reasons and football is no exception, therefore in my opinion the Malta FA needs to draw a new strategy based on priorities and objectives. I believe that both at the association and also at club level, there are more than enough good administrators to draw up a plan for the next eight to 10 years.
“This will ascertain that the strategic vacuum we found in 2010 is not repeated again and that at any time anyone can asses the impact of the work done by the MFA at all levels.”
Speaking on providing a sound future for the national team, Vassallo believes that Malta can achieve better results on the international scene only if more young players continue their career abroad.
“Based on the realities at the time I was in Malta no club had a professional structure, the idea was to try and export our best talents and that is why the Malta FA has invested a lot in the last few years on the grassroots sector to give the best formation to young players and provide them the opportunity to showcase their talent in the international competition,” Vassallo said.
“However, very few are those who are ready to leave their ‘comfort zone’ and join a foreign club.
“It’s a pity that we have several young players who have shown a lot of promise but when the opportunity came knocking on their door they decided to stay in Malta and thus ending their hopes of maximising their potential.
“When you work abroad you need a lot of will power to overcome all obstacles and try and succeed.
“In Malta most players think that a career in football is equivalent to an easy life, but the reality shows otherwise both at domestic level and more so away from home where you have to fight for survival and all the glitters is not gold.”
During his time as MFA CEO and then general secretary Vassallo was a key figure in trying to modernise the Maltese game in terms of regulations, infrastracture and good governance management.
Yet he feels that Maltese football still needs to make a next step and he believes that the Legal Notice on Commercialisation of Sporting Facilities under the Sports Law could provide a better future to Maltese clubs.
In Malta most players think that a career in football is equivalent to an easy life, but the reality shows otherwise both at domestic level and more so away from home where you have to fight for survival
“In almost ten years that I spent in Maltese football administration we decided to invest millions of euros in club infrastructure because we felt we needed better pitches and stadiums in our country,” Vassallo said.
“During the years we reformed the basic structure of Maltese football and the game can only get stronger. But now it’s important that the game’s technical aspect and also the club’s administration and their ability to become self-sustainable are given more attention.
“The Law of Commercialisation of Sporting Facilities has been discussed in parliament and rubberstamped but now it’s high time that clubs submitting their plans start benefitting from this legislature.
“This is because only through commercial revenue that you have local or foreign businessman investing in the game as they will be able to see the rewards of their investment.”
Back on FIFA matters, Vassallo said that since Infantino took charge, the governing body has always tried to help all associations in the football development area.
“Today FIFA gives back almost $2 billion to the members in solidarity/development funds. This has been a major decision by the president, from which football is benefiting in every part of the world.
“The amount of funds for every member association has increased steadily over the years – from half a million to $4 million between 2016 and 2018 and in the next cycle (2019-2022) that amount will go up to $6m.
“This money will be spent on the operate of associations, namely human resources and education as well as for tailor-made projects in football infrastructure, technical development, capacity building and competitions.
“This financial assistance is crucial to leave a lasting legacy and ensure associations embark on projects that will befit young players, female players and players with special needs both at amateur and professional level around the world.”
Vassallo said that Infantino’s biggest feat since taking over at FIFA was in managing to bring football back to the people and to FIFA following years of embezzlement and scandals by its top officials.
“Infantino has been a breathe of fresh air at FIFA as he is a president that knows where he wants to take the organisation,” Vassallo said.
“His performance during the last two years has been excellent and I’m sure it will get even better in the coming years. His decisions left a huge impetus on the game, primarily from a human resources aspect, with the appointment of the first ever female general secretary that has sent a very strong message wanting a FIFA open for everyone. Fatma Samoura has proven herself even though she was not coming from the world of football but from the UN. She has ability and competence.
“Added to that Infantino has given world football the needed boost and his work to improve the good governance standards at the world governing body and attracting people like Zvonimir Boban, Marco Van Basten, Pier Luigi Collina and Joyce Cook in the developmment, technical and refereeing aspect of the game surely give a confident outlook to the future of the ‘Beautiful Game’.”
Towards the end of the interview I asked Vassallo on rumours that he could head into local politics.
“I heard a lot of rumours about my future but the truth is that at present I’m fully focused to continue my role at FIFA,” Vassallo said.
“Obviously I can’t vouch on what can happen in the future, however, if in the coming years I feel that I could give my contribution in this area I will evaluate the situation and make the necessary decisions.”
And a possible return to Maltese football... is that an option?
“I enjoy working close to the football people and I think that my contribution is appreciated by everyone both locally and abroad, therefore you can never exclude anything. However, I am committed to FIFA.”
Source : https://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20181021/football/accountability-transparency-and-inclusivity-behind-fifas-renaissance.692184