Infantino Trumps FIFA

by | May 20, 2017

Among the millions of words from American political pundits and satirists about Donald bloody Trump, NBC’s Saturday Night Live broadcast the straightest-to-the-point, last… well… Saturday night. The previous Thursday, Trump told NBC journalist Lester Holt that he fired Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director James Comey while thinking about “this Russia thing,” the Comey-led FBI investigation into the nature of the Trump’s presidential campaign team’s links with Russia, and their role in Trump’s election victory last November. (NB: “The nature” of those links, not “if” they existed. One for the politicos there).

On SNL, Michael Che’s “Holt”, got Alec Baldwin’s “Trump” to admit to sacking Comey “because he’s investigating Russia and I don’t like that.” Holt/Che replied: “And you’re just admitting that? But that’s obstruction of justice… wait…so… did I get him? Is this all over?” before reciting what was being whispered in his earpiece: “Oh…no I didn’t. Nothing matters. Absolutely nothing matters anymore.”

In Swiss competitions-draw compere Gianni Infantino’s Fifa, absolutely nothing matters anymore either. At May 11th’s 2017 Fifa Annual Congress in Manama, cheap, cheerful, accountable, human-rights-loving Bahrain’s capital, Infantino summoned his inner Trump to rant about, and blame continuing criticism of Fifa on, “fake news” and the “spreading” of “a lot of wrong and false information, just to harm the organisation.”

He went on (and on): “Fake news, alternative facts: these terms did not exist until some time ago. They have become in vogue. Fifa-bashing has become a national sport, especially in some countries,” possibly looking at the English FA delegation at that point. He could not, however, produce ONE example on request. “Generally, it’s my feeling,” he said, his face metaphorically turning more orange with each word of what is a major tenet of “Trump-ism,” if you can dignify Trump’s wittering twitterings with a label suggesting political coherence.

The Trump parallels were scarily easy to draw throughout last week. Within hours of Comey’s dismissal, the two Fifa Ethics Committee chiefs who “caught” so many of Fifa’s old regime getting up to no ethics good (and who, apropos of absolutely nothing whatsoever…have investigated president Infantino’s own ethics) were “gone-ski,” as Indian Premier League cricket commentator Danny Morrison irritatingly proclaims when a wicket falls.

The May 9th decision of Fifa’s “ruling” Council (inverted commas more appropriate with each Infantino “reform”) not to “renew the mandate” of Ethics Committee chiefs Hans-Joachim Eckert and Cornel Borbely came under intense scrutiny at Congress…hah, no. I could smell the rubber-stamps from here.

Rumours of their demises had circulated for months. Subtle briefings hinted at “self-serving agenda” and excessive costs, the latter especially sensitive given Fifa’s recent announcement of heavy, and likely growing, financial losses. Yet, four weeks ago, Fifa’s Infantino-appointed Secretary-General Fatma Samoura told Swiss newspaper Tages Anziger she “did not understand” how they arose. And more recently she offered “100%” support for them, although that is, of course, 10% short of football’s definition of “total.”

Like Comey, Borbely and Eckert were not entirely the “good guys” in the build-up to their propulsion towards the undercarriage of a bus. Many protesters at Comey’s dismissal were calling FOR it after he announced additional investigations into presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s e-mailing habits, eleven days before election day, turning her election-winning nine-point opinion polls lead into an election-losing three-point…er…lead.

Borbely and Eckert were initially lambasted for ousting political opponents of disgraced Swiss gnomic ex-Fifa president Sepp Blatter, via ethics violation charges of varying plausibility. For instance, those sounds you can hear are NOT the tears of Harold Mayne-Nicholls, the Chilean chairman of the 2018/22 World Cups Bid Evaluation Group.

In July 2015, Mayne-Nicholls was banned from football for seven years (reduced to three on appeal) for considering challenging Blatter for the Fifa presidency “repeatedly asking for personal favours” from Qatar’s bid committee, shortly before the group…er…comprehensively dismantled the Qatar’s bid’s credibility.

Borbely vigorously drove these transparently nonsensical allegations. And Fifa-bothering journalist par excellence Andrew Jennings labelled Borbely “hand-picked by Blatter.” Jennings echoed this before a July 2015 US Senate sub-committee, suggesting Blatter worked “to eliminate his rivals” while “his hand-picked Ethics Committee obey his instructions.”

This was perceived wisdom until Borbely and Eckert pursued Blatter and his leading henchmen (Fifa Secretary-General Jerome Valcke and Uefa’s Michel Platini) that autumn. And last week, former leading football journalist Paul Kelso (now Sky’s health correspondent!) noted correctly that they were being “mourned as if they were Eliot Ness,” despite taking “years to ban the demonstrably corrupt,” i.e. Blatter, Valcke and Platini.

Mark Pieth was more sympathetic “FIFA is ridiculing itself. It’s astonishing to take such steps as it’s obvious Infantino’s undermining the institution. (Either) he feels so secure that he just thinks ‘to hell with it, I don’t care’. (Or) he was very scared of the two ethics officials.”

And they naturally recognised the ethical deficit of their removal. It was “clearly politically-motivated,” an intriguing echo of the “politically-motivated whitewash” of which Eckert was accused when his summary of the 2014 “Garcia Report” on football corruption allegedly contained “numerous materially incomplete and erroneous representations of the facts.”

In a statement, they rather arrogantly and pompously claimed that their removal meant “de facto an end to reform efforts.” But they could “look back at their work with pride” having “made sports history.” Their “successors will have to familiarize themselves with the dossiers and the processes,” there would be “long delays in current investigations.”

And having noted that “since 2015 the Investigatory Chamber has carried out 194 investigations and the Adjudicatory Chamber has sentenced more than 70 officials,” they also accused “the heads of Fifa” of prioritising “their own and political interests” over Fifa’s “long-term interests.”

The judges addressed an unavoidably hastily-arranged press conference on May 10th, yards from the Congress venue, having only learned of what a number of reports labelled their “defenestration” at the proverbial last minute, Eckert reportedly when disembarking from his flight to Manama.

Here they claimed they were paid “20 times less than what FIFA compensates outside law firms.” In response to criticisms that they were merely reactive to the US legal authorities’ stellar investigatory and indictment work, they highlighted their considerable previous successes work, including “taking down” the then-Asian football supremo, Qatar’s Mohammed bin Hammam. And Borbely declared Fifa reform “a dead letter” which “has at least stepped backwards for several years.”

Infantino denied all this, because of course he did. And not in the remotest sense because of one rumoured-investigation. German magazine Der Spiegel recently claimed Infantino was under preliminary ethics investigation into whether he, perish the very thought, had a “prohibited influence” over the recent Confederation of African Football (Caf) presidential election.

In a Congress speech CERTAINLY not designed to influence any vote on Borbely’s and Eckert’s fates, Infantino angrily refused to “accept any good governance lesson from self-confessed governance gurus who’ve miserably failed.” He then condemned, with an American sense of irony, “experts, paid millions, (who) simply rubber-stamped a sick and wrong system.” Yes. He condemned rubber-stamping. To Fifa’s Congress. Mind you, he also said “Fifa makes human rights a priority. We need to promote human rights.” To Fifa’s Congress. In Bahrain.

Infantino later said he had “no issue with either Eckert or Borbely, whose departures were “a simple question of due process.” However, there were more, and more complex, “questions of due process” about Corbely’s replacement, Colombian State Council president María Claudia Rojas.

Far from being a Fifa Council appointment, Rojas had been earmarked for her new role from mid-April, when Infantino phoned her to arrange a meeting at South American confederation Conmebol’s Santiago Congress on April 26th. Rojas said Infantino “told me he wanted experienced people with a high level of integrity to help Fifa’s image recover after the corruption scandals (and) to wait and see at the congress in Bahrain.”

Yet…YET despite this, Bloomberg News journalist, Tariq Panja (another laudable Fifa-botherer) reported this Monday that “officials carrying out background checks had such little time to complete their work” on Rojas that their “decision could be reversed should new facts emerge about (her).” A clear arse/elbow identity crisis.

The , if anti-Infantino, website InsideWorldFootball (IWF) begged to differ with the “due process” line on Eckert’s replacement. They said Uefa nominated Greece’s former European Court of Justice president Vassilios Skouris “to be considered for a position in FIFA’s new governance structure.” But they “never specifically suggested he be given the top job in the ethics apparatus.”

IWF called the decision “entirely the FIFA Council’s” but on Infantino’s “recommendation.” Council member, German FA president Reinhard Grindel, asked Fifa’s administration “if there were any announcements” about Borbely and Eckert being “displaced.” Fifa “had no information. You have to ask Infantino why he made this proposal. There was no open decision.”

However, dissenters were in the minority. Corbely and Eckert’s mandate non-renewal was the highest-profile part of an en bloc overhaul of Fifa governance personnel, which could only be opposed en bloc. And, as former Fifa presidential candidate Jordan’s Prince Ali bin Al-Hussein said last week, most of Congress is “totally dependent on Fifa, so it is very hard to take an opposing view to a president.” Unsurprisingly, such issues chilled dissent. Even Grindel abstained. Even the English FA scurried into line. Yes, I too was shocked.

And even Concacaf president Victor Montaglio, who lauded Borbely and Eckert’s “yeoman’s work,” declared it “time to give someone else an opportunity” because Fifa had “the right to do that.” He also rejected suggestions that Borbely and Eckert’s de-windowing was politically-motivated, as “people who sit in those chairs need to be less political.” He could have done with reading that back to himself. Montaglio is Canadian. Canada are likely to be fast-tracked as 2026 World Cup co-hosts. By the way.

In his terrific Guardian newspaper article on Congress, David Conn reported a “push for more diversity of gender and geographical location” by those pesky confederations, before noting drily that the German Eckert’s replacement Skouris “appears to be a Greek male.” And Infantino “offered the same explanation, being a European man,” for dismissing former ECJ advocate and Portuguese government minister Miguel Maduro,” after eight months as Governance and Review Committee chairman.

Maduro was a much-trumpeted Infantino-appointee at 2016’s Congress, heading an “independent review” body “designed to protect (Fifa) against any conflict of interest in the approval of appointments to the key committees.” He did exactly that in March, barring Russia’s high-profile Football Federation president Vitaly Mutko from seeking Fifa Council re-election, because of Mutko’s sideline as a rather more influential deputy prime minister than Nick Clegg.

Mutko grudgingly accepted Naduro’s decision, claiming Fifa had “introduced a new criterion, political neutrality” as “is their right.” But Fifa’s opposition to government interference is not new. And their intermittent application of it is entirely political. Mutko was Russia’s Sports Minister when he joined Fifa’s Executive Committee in 2009 but that apparently was A-OK.

Maduro then, again wholly within his stated remit, asked Kuwaiti’s Sheik Ahmad Al Sabah to undergo another eligibility check before seeking re-election to one of the Asian Confederation’s Council seats.

Ahmad was readily identifiable as “Co-Conspirator no.2” in the April 27th US Department of Justice indictment of Guam FA ex-president Richard Lai. The description, “a high-ranking official of Fifa, the Kuwaiti Football Association and the Olympic Council of Asia,” narrowed the field of potential co-conspirators down to under two. He pleaded innocence and…resigned hurriedly from all his football positions and Council candidacy. He has frequently been labelled a world football politics “player.” And he transparently “plays” for Infantino.

Panja reported that “Maduro was told by high-ranking FIFA officials his decision to block Mutko would lead to serious difficulties with Russia.” However, Maduro’s removal is purely, solely, simply, oh yes about the Euro-centric “international mix” of Fifa’s leading figures…even being a Swiss-Italian administrator, with no previous electoral-office experience, appears not to be a problem.

More problematically, Fifa ranks have broken rather quicker than US Republican Party ones. Maduro was no standard-bearer for internal Fifa democracy, having proposed that FIFA’s main governance positions should be fixed-term appointments rather than elected. But his removal, about which he also heard disrespectfully late, led to three resignations-in-protest from his Governance Committee. Almost immediately, New York University School of Law professor Joseph Weiler quit.

And on Thursday, two more committee members followed suit; South African Navi Pillay, who was UN High Commissioner for Human Rights from 2008 to 2014 and the tremendously-named Ron Popper, an Oxford-educated ex-journalist and experienced Human Rights advocate. Both had joined the Committee in January.

Maduro’s parting shot for Fifa hit the bullseye, though. He told the Associated Press news agency that “the world of football still hasn’t realised what is required if they really want to act under the rule of law and in a manner that is subject to efficient, independent scrutiny.”

It was a curious end to his week, which had begun with Fifa proposing to scrap the sole independent member on its Compensation Committee, which sets salaries for leading Fifa officials, including El Presidente Infantino, and the then Fifa-insider Maduro being touted as the replacement. This, and other proposed changes to Fifa statutes, were given to what’s Council meeting report called a “dedicated working group to conduct a general review and reinforcement” of the statutes.

Also proposed but not (yet) discussed were changes to the remit of Fifa’s slightly sinisterly-named “Bureau.” Blatter, for self-serving purposes, once denied that football’s six continental confederations were even part of Fifa.

Infantino planned for their “elected” leaders to BE Fifa, to all decision-making intents and purposes, as the “Bureau” comprises Infantino and the Confederation presidents, such as (see “prohibited influence” above) newly-elected Caf supremo, Madagascar’s previously unheralded Ahmad Ahmad and recently-elected, (with no help from Infantino whatsoever…oh no) Uefa chief, Slovakia’s previously unheralded Aleksander Ceferin (what pattern?).

The Bureau deals with “matters of particular urgency.” However, a summary of the proposals, published by World Soccer magazine’s highly-respected Keir Radnedge on May 3rd, suggested that “relevant practice has shown…certain other matters that, while not being of particular urgency, should nevertheless also be dealt with by the Bureau.” Thus, “the competences of the Bureau should be partially expanded to include certain non-urgent matters.”

The “relevant practice” and “certain other non-urgent matters” were unspecified. But, in case anyone doubted the purpose of the plans, there would “no longer be a requirement for the Council to ratify” Bureau “decisions.”

The plans were withdrawn before they could be discussed by Fifa’s Council, which might have queried their own emasculation. Best ask them after what Radnedge called “considerations of an increase in their basic $300,000 (annual) stipends,” eh? But it will be no surprise if the plans are quietly un-withdrawn, possibly by the afore-mentioned Statutes working group, whose “composition will be determined by… the Bureau of the Council.”

These were but the biggest of a series of Infantino’s power-grabs, all as naked as the top of his head, all undermining Infantino’s claim to Congress that “the new FIFA is a democracy, it is not a dictatorship,” all part of what IWF’s Andrew Warshaw labelled the “Infantino-organised purge.”

Many new developments, electoral or otherwise, have involved inexperienced or outright non-football-experienced figures emerging in key roles. Experienced Fifa reform campaigner Moya Dodd was convincingly beaten, 27 votes to 17, in another Fifa Council election by the previously-unheralded Mahfuza Akhter Kiron, who then took three goes to correctly name the Women’s World Cup holders.

Maybe Kiron missed the start of the 2015 final and thought her first guess, Japan, won 2-1, not noticing that the unassuming USA were four-up after 16 minutes. Or maybe she’s a relatively clueless, unqualified idiot. And maybe, just maybe, the words “Fifa reform campaigner” counted against Dodd.

Still, at least amid all this embarrassing exposure of Infantino’s efforts to “clean-up” Fifa as a sham, no high-ranking Fifa official, such as Secretary-General Fatma Samoura, was caught (by the increasingly-heroic Der Spiegel again) paying nearly 30,000 Swiss francs last year to Swiss company and official Fifa partner SCJ, for cleaning her own house five-times-a-week. That would be crushing symbolism which even Fifa wouldn’t remotely dare risk…wait…what? Oh.

Samoura paid the money back last month but Fifa auditors PricewaterhouseCoopers somehow neglected to mention the payment in their audit. Fortunately, Tomaz Vesel, Fifa Audit and Compliance Committee chief (and – small world, eh? – football-playing pal of Uefa president Ceferin) had a wrist-slapper ready, refusing, “in principle,” to “recommend as an optimal procedure” Fifa employees having “personal contracts with Fifa partners and service providers” (trans: don’t get caught).

Even as it is being aped, Fifa’s past will continue to haunt Fifa’s present, especially as the US DoJ is indicting people beyond the Americas, currently unaffected by the election of a fat racist narcissistic tangerine as their politically-powerful president. For instance, the repugnant Jack Warner, the worst crook of Fifa’s ancien regime, is potentially inching closer to a prison cell, as his grim attempts to avoid extradition from his native Trinidad face renewed challenge in July.

And despite these re-emerging ghosts, the, admittedly cliched, idea of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” becomes truer every day of Infantino’s presidency. Soon, the only difference between the baldy Blatter and the real one will be that Infantino can actually play football. Among many other games.

As Abe Asher superbly wrote on US website World Soccer Talk: “Fifa is not an appreciably different organization” from Blatter’s black days. “Infantino hasn’t yet, so far as we know, bought elections” (well, no, he hasn’t BOUGHT any) “or sold World Cups, and he doesn’t suffer from Blatter’s senility, but he does not appear at all interested in cleaning FIFA up.”

Infantino told Congress: “We are rebuilding FIFA’s reputation after all that happened. If there is anyone who is in the room who thinks he can abuse football and enrich himself, I have one message: leave football now, we don’t want you.” The first sentence was rendered false by the Congress at which he said it. The second belonged in front of a mirror.

But that doesn’t matter. Because “nothing matters. Absolutely nothing matters anymore.”

POSTSCRIPT: This wordy cynicism has been brought to you by a combination of strong pain-killers and the even stronger work of Fifa-bothering journalists. Not only the afore-mentioned Andrew Jennings, Keir Radnedge, David Conn Abe Asher and Tariq Panja. But also, Paul Nicholson, Andrew Warshaw, Richard Conway, Martyn Ziegler, Jens Weinreich, Pal Odegard, the @changeFIFA and @newfifanow people and more. Sorry if I’ve left a few good ‘uns out.

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