FIFA: Infantino, Interviews & Infantility

by | Jun 8, 2016

With Fifa grabbing new headlines seemingly every time he goes to the toilet, Mark Murphy feared having to rewrite this article about 94 times. Then he discovered it’s all the same old story and concludes with proof that sometimes “the old ones are the only ones.”

It has been a year-and-a-bit since Blatter “stood up his man date” or whatever he did when pretending to leave the Fifa presidency. A good excuse for wondering what difference it has made. Well, predictably, it has made FA difference. On June 3rd, Fifa’s internal investigators Quinn Emmanuel (QE), revealed that Blatter, his secretary-general Jerome Valcke and finance director Markus Kattner trousered $80m in ‘extra’ payments in their last five Fifa years.

These ‘extra’ payments may be Blatter-era relics. But their timing appeared designed to benefit current president Gianni Infantino (while discrediting Blatter’s claim that Fifa corruption was an “Americas” issue).  And nobody should doubt the need for campaign groups such as ChangeFifa or NewFifaNow, after Infantino’s first 100 presidential days. Infantino has had a swift, brutal, fall from popular grace, encapsulated by headlines from two opinion pieces by the Deadspin website’s Billy Haisley. From “Why unambitious new president may be good news for reform” (February 26th) to “New President just gave himself more power than Sepp Blatter ever had” (May 13th).

The catalyst was, surprise, money; the “insulting” $2m salary offer Infantino received and refused on becoming president. (Infantino claims he currently has no contract or salary but his considerable pay-off from Uefa, where he was secretary-general until February, will surely tide him over). However, continuing, and (coincidentally?) all German, newspaper ‘revelations’ of an Infantino plot to “demission” the ‘source’ of this ‘insult,’ ex-audit and compliance chief and Fifa reform poster-boy Domenico Scala, have accelerated this fall.

On May 28th Frankfurter Allegmeine Zeitung (FAZ) reported on the Fifa Council’s pre-congress meeting in Mexico City on 9/10 May, based “on sources and notes taken by individuals who attended.” The topics included the Scala “plot,” and Infantino’s salary and potential investigations into his expenses. Fifa responded quickly and predictably. “A few individuals” were pursuing “their own agendas and (making) baseless allegations.” And plot allegations were “ludicrous.” However, FAZ then published transcripts of the meeting discrediting these claims.

Infantino “was informed…that (Scala) has filed a complaint against me” and was assured that “this goes straight in the bin.” However, council member and United States Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said: “We met a number of times in the last 24 hours (but) we don’t have a friendly resolution” to the Scala issue. Infantino replied: “We see if it’s possible for him to step down” and asked for “any preference here for a congress vote or a dismissal by the Council in one or two weeks?” Fifa’s home nations vice-president David Gill asked: “What reasons are they going to give? It is an unbelievable situation I can’t believe we want to create.” And Gulati added: “We can’t dismiss people without a piece of paper and facts.”

On June 2nd the Welt am Sonntag newspaper published purported emails from May 23rd, which appeared to confirm that Infantino ordered the meeting tapes destroyed. Instructed by Marco Villiger, Infantino’s new deputy-secretary-general and Fifa’s ex-director of…legal affairs, “the recordings on the SGO (secretary-general’s, currently empty, office) O-drive” were to be deleted and no “minutes of the last council meeting in Mexico” drafted from them. Instead, “Mattias from the P-Office will draft minutes and finalise them” from unspecified sources. And, ultra-handily, the last email said: “This is in line with the instructions I got from the President. Best regards, Marco.”

Infantino’s response was bog-standard: “There are things…taken out of context…I would like to know how minutes and audio recordings…can get into the newspapers…I have a pretty good idea how.” And “I reserve the right to file a complaint for the theft of sensitive data,” which confirmed the veracity of the leaked material. This wasn’t the first time the “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss” line could have been used. And Infantino’s early reign suggests one particularly disturbing Blatter-era echo. Alan Tomlinson’s 2003 book Badfellas: Fifa Family at War (which is to receive a timeous 2016 re-issue) detailed the “parallel administration” Blatter instigated within Fifa on becoming president in 1998. The Fuhrungscrew or “F-Crew” included new Blatter “advisors” Jerome Champagne and Michel Platini and, crucially, finance chief Urs Linsi.

According to Andrew Jennings’ seminal 2005 Fifa book Foul, Platini “established his own office in Paris,” where “staff were paid…more than most” at Fifa headquarters. The $2m payment which ended Platini’s football administration career had its origins in that era. The F-Crew was designed to undermine Fifa secretary-general Michel Zen-Ruffinen, who Blatter considered “Mister Clean” and, therefore, a threat. But it undermined all staff. And management consultants McKinseys (“European Sports Practice” chief: Philippe Blatter, nephew of you-know-who) were paid “at least £2m” to sort matters out.

Kattner joined Fifa from McKinseys in 2003. And F-Crews came to mind when Blatter said on 24th May that he and grade-one trough-snouter Valcke “had the authority to decide on bonuses” from 2008-2014, when Kattner received those for which he was dismissed last month. And it was “all done in conformity with the rules.” This was “an apparent admission that he was aware of Kattner’s contract and bonuses.” But what was “all done in conformity with” whose “rules”? Did the “F-Crew” post-date McKinsey’s consultations? And was this how Kattner and Platini’s payments evaded oversight? QE seemed to answer: “probably.”

However, QE’s revelations were interpreted as timed to divert attention from Infantino’s troubles. “Fifa’s case has revealed…the most opportune time to shove people under a bus,” tweeted Bloomberg’s Tariq Panja. And the figures put Infantino’s reported $2m salary offer into the desired perspective (small). Panja had a shed-load of questions. If “three blokes hijacked the payroll, what were the auditors doing? No-one at the Fifa payroll department wondered why three guys were getting $80m?” “How can a year-long internal investigation costing millions not discover this before?”

Of course, if an F-Crew was still going, payroll and audit departments might have struggled to pierce the veil of financial secrecy, especially with finance director Kattner involved. QE’s revelations confirmed many suspicions about Fifa bigwigs’ self-enrichment. But there was also an “indemnification provision” in Kattner’s 2011 contract amendment, under which Fifa agreed “to hold harmless and indemnify” him “from and against any and all costs and losses incurred from civil or criminal proceedings against him for matters in connection with his employment with Fifa, including lawyer’s fees, compensation payments, fines etc…” “That’s handy” Kattner may now think.

As important as these huge payments (and “monthly gross salary” seemingly multiplied by THIRTEEN to give an annual figure) were the “N/As” in the “Compensation Committee Approval” column and the small list of contract signatories. Apart from the three beneficiaries, only the demonstrably corrupt late ex-finance committee chair Julio Grondona signed anything off before Blatter’s 2015 re-election. But two contract amendments were made on the weekend after the first round of Fifa indictments (a timing which screamed “f**k you” to the relevant authorities). Blatter’s pay leapt by 50%, authorised by Cameroonian Fifa vice-president Issa Hayatou. And Kattner’s contract was extended until 2023, with a reminder that “clauses regarding special termination pay” and the “indemnification clause” referenced above “continue to apply.” “That’s handy,” Kattner may now think. This was authorised by Blatter, Valcke and…Scala. “That’s handy,” Infantino may now think.

Blatter’s lawyer, Richard Cullen, claimed Blatter’s payments “were proper, fair and in line with the heads of major professional sports leagues,” which ignored the fundamental difference between them and “not-for-profits,” like Fifa (no…really). Despite these headline-grabbers, the best of the Fifa press pack (who have cynicism on speed-dial) remain admirably focused on Infantino, especially as Infantino so often appears to use Blatter’s playbook and  appointments to his “team” look to some (OK…me) like the construction of another F-Crew.

New secretary-general, Senegalese United Nations official Fatma Samba Diouf Samoura, ticked boxes galore as an African, female, football outsider. However, Inside World Football (IWF) website editor Paul Nicholson noted that the scandal-plagued Concacaf federation appointed their latest secretary-general after a lengthy recruitment process, with “final candidates interviewed in person by the full Council.” “In contrast, the newly ‘reformed’ FIFA did not conduct a single formal interview before its Council approved (Samoura’s) appointment…unquestioningly.” And the BBC’s Richard Conway noted “concerns from many (Fifa) voices over how (Samoura) was hired,” just two days after Congress. (IWF is fiercely anti-Infantino, offering considerable presidential election support to frown-heavy, alleged human rights abuse-facilitator Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa. But that hasn’t discredited all their Infantino criticisms).

Fifa’s remuneration committee, chaired by Scala, wanted to pay future secretary-generals more than future presidents, as per the “strategic and ambassadorial” presidential role envisaged by Fifa’s latest ‘reforms.’ But Infantino wants to control Fifa’s “big-money” broadcast and sponsorship deals and be a Blatter-esque “executive” president. Thus, as Reuters journalist Simon Evans tweeted, the secretary-general has “no football or sports experience, no background in sports business at all” and could be sidelined like Zen-Ruffinen in 1998.

Infantino also appointed Norwegian Football Federation (NFF) secretary-general Kjetil Siem to an indeterminate role currently labelled “close advisor” or “head of strategy.”  Siem was a huge Blatter loyalist, which doesn’t necessarily make him a bad person but, well… He was also South Africa’s Richard Scudamore, its Premier League CEO. While his four-years as NFF secretary-general were pock-marked with financial semi-controversy…his annual salary was “nearly double that of prime-minister Erna Solberg.”

However, Infantino was already in trouble over a bizarre, unheralded Fifa statute amendment, allegedly the end-product of the Scala ‘plot,’ which “temporarily” transferred congress’s power to hire and fire Fifa’s “independent” oversight committee members to Fifa’s Council. Scala walked out of congress over the issue. His congress speech had not mentioned the planned changes. And in a statement issued on May 14th, he said he was “consternated” because the decision “undermines a central pillar of the good governance of Fifa and destroys a substantial achievement” of reforms he considered one of his ‘substantial achievements.’ The Council could “impede investigations against single members at any time, by dismissing the responsible Committee members or by keeping them acquiescent through the threat of a dismissal.”

Fifa called Scala’s claims “baseless” and said he “misinterpreted the purpose of the decision,” without “interpreting” it themselves. And Ethics Committee chairmen Hans Joachim-Eckert and Cornel Borbely didn’t “regard the decision…to transitionally delegate certain competences to…have any impact on the content of their work” which they would “continue to exercise…in full independence” (translation: “Please can we keep our jobs?”). However, Infantino’s move was widely-labelled a “power-grab” and former Fifa-reformer Mark Pieth claimed Infantino was “falling back to the worst times of Blatterism.” Fifa responded with clumsy damage-limitation; “certain individuals” were still “seeking to advance their own agenda to the detriment of football” and Pieth’s claims were “baseless”, despite Pieth…er…’basing’ them on “information” which Fifa were “dismayed” he had. And they claimed the Council would only exercise their new powers if asked by “the relevant independent judicial bodies or the Audit & Compliance Committee,” something which didn’t appear in the proposals passed at Congress (and will surely be forgotten when the pressure is off).

Still the critics came. In the Telegraph newspaper on May 16th, Jordan’s Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein said Infantino “(completely betrayed) those who thought they had voted for change, transparency, fair play and reform.” Then, anti-corruption campaigners Transparency International “hoped that if (Infantino) wanted to remove people from the committees he could have found a less autocratic way to do it.” While international sports lawyer David Larkin claimed the powers would “chill independence in FIFA investigations, judicial decisions, finances and compliance.” He couldn’t believe that ex-attorney Infantino “doesn’t grasp the dire implications of all this.”

So, on May 18th, Infantino issued a personal statement Facts not speculation which trumpeted Fifa’s “huge strides towards its rehabilitation” at Congress and justified the statute amendment because “new, advanced eligibility checks…(meant)…it was not possible to compile enough qualified candidates.” Yep…not enough “clean” Fifa people to fill a few committee vacancies. Infantino added: “Without this decree, a legally-convicted member could not be removed…until the next Congress in May 2017.” Ignoring Infantino’s revealing use of “decree”, this seemed to overlook the powers of suspension from “all football-related activity” which finished Blatter. He then confirmed that “this authority…lasts only until the next Congress,” without explaining what would happen then, when current circumstances/problems could reconvene. Unless the Council’s “select authority” was made permanent by the “compliant or somnambulant member associations” who “waved through” said authority.

With his metaphorical squirrels failing to distract his critics, Infantino last weekend undertook a damage-limitation newspaper interview round, including his fellow Swiss at Le Matin Dimanche. He claimed he only heard about Scala’s resignation “when I got off the plane on returning from Mexico,” adding: “Incidentally we were on the same flight. It would have been a bit classier if he had informed me beforehand. However, he was clearly rather proud of his dramatic little stunt.”

“This…belongs in the playground,” he declared. “I don’t want to attach any more importance to it.” However: “(Scala) thinks football is run according to the same management principles as a pharmaceutical company or a pesticide manufacturer. But (his) discovery of football was both sudden and recent, so I forgive his gaps in knowledge and errors of judgement.” Playgrounds, eh? He said of Samoura: “(She) has yet to officially start work…but people are already questioning her experience. I find this wrong and discriminatory…I fail to see why a woman cannot occupy the highest roles in world football.” This was offensive rubbish. No questions on her suitability were gender-based. “She was recommended…by some very distinguished people” he continued, without naming names. “Things” then “moved very quickly” to avoid “(missing) out on the chance to employ someone of her quality,” as if Samoura couldn’t wait for a proper recruitment process. “I was fully convinced, as was the Council,” he added, overlooking the Council’s limited opportunity to properly discuss Samoura, or alternative candidates. Questions are now emerging about expenses incurred on Infantino’s recent trip to see Pope Francis. And his end-of-congress claim that “Fifa is back on track. So I can officially inform you here, the crisis is over” now looks absurd.

All this has overshadowed the welter of ongoing Fifa corruption stories. The Copa America Centenario tournament, which attracted so many bribery schemes, has just started. And it could have refocused attention on the indictees still making their way through the justice system. Last month’s election of a(nother) new Concacaf president, Canada’s Victor Montagliani, could have linked to the latest tales of predecessor Jeffrey Webb’s life of ill-funded debauchery. There’s the repugnant Jack Warner’s grubby attempts to drag out judicial proceedings against him. And Ethics Committee proceedings against German football ex-chief Wolfsgang Niersbach over the, ahem, ‘acquisition’ of the 2006 World Cup. All for other days.

Infantino’s ambitions to make Fifa his personal fiefdom, like his grubby predecessors Blatter and Brazilian Joao Havelange, should remain unfulfilled, given ongoing vigilance from top journalists (no mainstream Scottish hacks need apply). But will Fifa ever recognise its own ridiculousness? After all, surely only Fifa would currently discuss potential sponsorship with a company called (wait for it…) “Alibaba.” Like Fifa needs 40 MORE thieves.

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