After the Arrests
The collapse of Fifa, the rise of Gianni Infantino and how much has really changed?
Contemplating the unravelling of football’s historic world governing body, the scandals laid bare within its black bunker of an HQ high on a Zurich hill, it is still difficult at times to feel convinced this all did definitely happen. It is an established fact that of Fifa’s 24 executive committee members in 2010 with the voting power to select the hosts of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, 17 have been suspended, banned, criminally indicted or arrested since the votes for Russia and Qatar.
Chuck Blazer, the unimpeachable, unabashed, unashamed Trump Tower-based general secretary of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Football Associations (Concacaf), really did plead guilty to gargantuan corruption in 2013 and turned informant on others before he died last year. His former 20-year associate, Jack Warner, Concacaf president from 1990, who had the Football Association bowing and cringing as he dangled his vote for the 2018 World Cup hosts, is the subject of a criminal indictment on the worst bribe-taking accusation of all, and he has very senior lawyers fighting extradition from his native Trinidad to the US.
Sepp Blatter, 40 years in the inner sanctum of Fifa, entertained by emirs, kings and prime ministers worldwide, elected president five times and seemingly coated with Teflon, was unquestionably banned in December 2015 and found, despite his bewildered denials, that there was no way back. Michel Platini, a football great as a France international, captain, coach, administrator and Uefa president accustomed to ascending the greatest heights, was banned along with Blatter and sat out the 2016 European Championship in his own country, sulking in his holiday home.
It did happen, we all watched it transfixed, that the US authorities all of a sudden thumped down an indictment against – ultimately – 27 defendants and the Swiss executed warrants on their behalf. Those Fifa high-ups were really, truly arrested in May 2015 on the eve of Blatter’s re-election, woken rudely from their plumped-up duvets in the Baur au Lac Hotel. A trail of people along with Blazer accepted they had been guilty of bribery, fraud and that most American of criminal enterprises, racketeering, and testified to their crimes in humbled guilty pleas whose transcripts were made public. For those pleading their innocence, there has already been one full criminal trial in Brooklyn, during which an Argentinian football official and lawyer, Jorge Delhon, who was accused by one guilty-pleading witness of accepting annual US$500,000 bribes on TV rights deals, killed himself in Buenos Aires hours later.
That is how real it all is.
Yet still it remains a stretch to absorb it all, really to believe it, that the highest authority of the world’s greatest sport was indeed so spectacularly exposed for its culture of entitlement and corruption, that so many Fifa barons did come tumbling down, after all the years of furious denial.
Part of the reason you have to pinch yourself is because already, just two years on since the election of Gianni Infantino, another Swiss career football administrator, to replace Blatter, Fifa can seem to carry on like it all never happened. Infantino would of course reject that assertion; he would insist that the wrongdoers have been expunged and important reforms incorporated. Only a month after his election of February 2016, Fifa filed an action in the US legal proceedings positioning itself as a victim, wronged by the dreadful corruption now alleged or already proven. The “victim statement and request for restitution” seeks US$38m damages, plus “other sums that were diverted as bribes and kickbacks for media rights,” and more, which could be limitless, for “reputational harm the defendants have caused to Fifa.”
The list of those accused by Fifa on the front page of this claim would just a couple of years earlier have still been a list of the made and respected, whose reputations Fifa’s own officials would have felt duty-bound to defend and extol: Warner; Ricardo Teixeira, 23 years the president of the Brazilian football federation (CBF) and in position on the executive committee; Nicolás Leoz, president of the South American football confederation (Conmebol) for a ridiculous 27 years, and a roll call of other Brazilian and South American football barons.
Jeffrey Webb, the professed clean-up candidate who succeeded Warner as Concacaf president, was installed on the highest committees at Fifa and touted as a possible president after Blatter. He was one of those hauled out of the Baur au Lac under arrest in May 2015 and six months later he gave up denying it all and pleaded guilty to having filled his bank account with bribes from the minute he was in a position to take them. His guilty plea contains a key admission which points to the general rottenness of the culture; he described the “side payments” available from marketing companies in return for them being awarded the commercial rights to matches. “At the time I understood this to be a bribe offer,” Webb explained, “and I believed that such offers were common in this business.”
While professing to be leading a new era of integrity at Concacaf, behind the curtain Webb was duly filling his boots. That is another central reason for the feeling of disbelief, that Webb and so many other chiefs have really been brought down; because of how they set their public face for so long. Corruption and bad governance of various forms were alleged for years and Fifa operated a culture in response of absolute denial. In 2002, almost half the executive committee grouped together to allege criminal mismanagement by Blatter and make a formal complaint, based on internal documents produced by the general secretary-turned whistleblower, Michel Zen-Ruffinen. Blatter denied it all, as he still does; the Swiss prosecutor took no action and after his re-election, Blatter famously said of Zen-Ruffinen with great contempt, that he would now deal with “Mr Clean.” Zen-Ruffinen was soon gone, although he said he had resigned.
The most priceless of all the old Fifa barons’ indignant responses to repeated corruption allegations was delivered by Warner, when confronted and pursued on camera in 2010 by the veteran investigative journalist Andrew Jennings. Filming the famous Panorama documentary aired by the BBC days before the Fifa vote to select the host countries for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups – whose broadcast the Football Association tried to prevent because they were bidding for the 2018 tournament – Jennings was waiting for Warner in the arrival hall at Zurich airport.
Warner, a former history lecturer in Trinidad, had worked his way up the oligarchy of football politics over three decades to attain the heights of Fifa power and avail himself of its privileges. Supported by his constant partner, Blazer, Warner was in 1990 elected president of Concacaf, a position he held for 21 years with a bloc vote of the Caribbean region’s many small island countries. That secured him a seat on the 24-man executive committee around Blatter.
In 2006 Warner was reprimanded by Fifa’s disciplinary committee after an investigation found that his son, Daryan, picked up World Cup tickets that were then sold at prices above their face value in packages provided by Warner’s own family travel company, Simpaul. The committee did not find it proven that Warner himself knew about the resale, but it was nevertheless a blot on his record.
Jennings had pursued Warner for years as part of his persistent investigations into Fifa, and Blatter, Warner and all of them imperiously and contemptuously dismissed all the allegations. For Panorama, Jennings had some more accusations about World Cup tickets he wanted to put to Warner, who landed immaculate in a navy blue suit and did not appear delighted to see Jennings there, in a Columbo-style mac, with a BBC film crew behind him.
“Mr Warner, good morning, welcome to Zurich,” Jennings, a veteran of the TV doorstep, greeted him.
Warner ignored him, marching with still-suppressed fury to where his Fifa Mercedes would be waiting. Jennings asked him straight out: “Just a polite question: how much profit did you make selling World Cup tickets this year?”
Warner kept himself buttoned up and Jennings, still asking the ticket questions, went up an escalator alongside him. They were striding towards the exit when Warner’s restraint finally snapped. On camera, captured for TV documentary gold, he growled to Jennings:
“If I could have spit on you, I would’ve spat on you.”
Even Jennings appeared slightly taken aback at the extent of that vitriol.
“If you could spit on me, you would spit on me?” he asked.
Then Warner said, almost under his breath: “I would not of course dignify my spit.”
I felt at the time that this insult came out the wrong way around; that Warner meant to say that he would not dignify Jennings with his spit, but Jennings, not missing a step, asked quite ingenuously:
“Why would you spit on me?”
“Because you’re garbage,” Warner replied.
“I’m garbage,” Jennings pondered. Then he asked again:
“What viewers and fans are interested to know is how much money did you make selling World Cup tickets this year?”
Now outside the airport and in the home stretch to the waiting Merc, Warner seemed to breathe more easily and relax, and he replied:
“Ask your mother.”
A touch non-plussed again, Jennings queried: “Ask…?”
“My mother’s dead, actually, but it’s nice of you to remind me of that,” Jennings said.
Warner, now getting into the back of the car, still would not back down at that human response and said, quietly and nastily:
“Go to find her. Find her.”
When the Fifa edifice finally crumbled with the dawn arrests of the high-ups at the Baur au Lac, Warner was on the indictment and his expressed contempt for Andrew Jennings came to mind, a distillation of the decades-long denial culture.
Fifa embodies a remarkable history. Formed by amateur football enthusiasts from seven European countries in an upstairs office on the Rue St Honoré in Paris in 1904, the federation grew to embrace all countries, united under the same laws, and organized the World Cup from the first, in Uruguay, in 1930. In modern times as the money mushroomed, first for sponsorships then most spectacularly in the 1990s for TV rights, corruption did become endemic, but was always absolutely denied. Faced directly with accusations, Warner seemed to speak for the whole of Blatter’s Fifa, retorting that he would not dignify the questions, or even the person asking them, with his spit. People were denounced as garbage even for asking.
In May 2011, six months after the World Cup vote, the brigadiers of denial were on parade again at Fifa’s congress in Zurich. Blatter was standing for his fourth term as president and just days before his one challenger, his long-term former supporter turned determined rival, the Qatari construction magnate Mohamed bin Hammam, had pulled out. That followed a landmark episode in Trinidad, where bin Hammam had flown on the invitation of Warner to press his case with the officials of the voting countries in the Caribbean Football Union. After his 45-minute address, the CFU dignitaries were invited to an upstairs hotel room where, on Warner’s orders, they were offered US$40,000 in cash – for their federations, he said. The various inquiries into this affair established that there had been a suitcase with US$1m in cash in it, which was parcelled up into separate US$40,000 packages, literally in brown envelopes.
One of the people at the gathering who refused to accept it, Frederick Lunn, executive vice-president of the Bahamas FA, recalled in his statement to the inquiries that he had been told to hide the money so that none of the people outside the room would know that he had it. Lunn called his FA’s president, Anton Sealey, who told him that “under no circumstances would the BFA accept such a cash gift,” and told Lunn to give the money back. Lunn remembered stuffing the brown envelope down “the waist of my pants” as he made his way back to the hotel room, to let Warner’s officials know that the gift was not being accepted.
Warner, memorably, reacted to those who blew the whistle on these cash gifts by gathering all the delegates in a room and reminding them of the code of silence to the outside world: “Our business is our business.”
Warner said that the money was “not a gift that I told [bin Hammam] to give to you because … I didn’t want him to appear that he is buying votes.” He said the FAs could use it for development or for grassroots programmes. He sought to warn off any of those present who believed the payments were improper: “There are some people here who believe they are more pious than thou,” Warner said, delivering another classic line. “If you are pious, open a church, friend.”
For Panorama, Jennings had evidence of more than Warner’s alleged profiteering from selling tickets. The BBC aired allegations of serious bribe-taking embedded in the corridors of Fifa HQ, which had been recited in a Swiss court settlement Fifa was determinedly keeping secret. The settlement was not officially disclosed until another two and half years had rolled by, when the court in the Swiss canton of Zug finally agreed to an application from the BBC for it to be made public.
In July 2012 the publication of the settlement, which resulted in the dropping of an intended criminal prosecution of Fifa, confirmed Jennings’ reporting. The court documented that Fifa’s era-bestriding president before Blatter, the Brazilian João Havelange, had been paid millions in bribes by the marketing company International Sport and Leisure (ISL) through the 1990s. With his son-in-law and protégé Teixeira, who was still a voting member of the executive committee, Havelange had been paid 41m CHF (£30m) by ISL. Smaller amounts of money were also paid to two other executive committee members: Nicolás Leoz and Issa Hayatou, the president of the Confederation of African Football (CAF). Hayatou always denied corruption and insisted the money was for CAF’s anniversary celebrations; Leoz later claimed to Fifa’s ethics committee that he gave the money to a school project in his home country, Paraguay – in January 2008, eight years after he received it.
The court document makes it clear that the payments were bribes, paid to secure principally Havelange’s influence in selling Fifa’s World Cup TV and marketing rights to ISL. They would acquire the rights and sell them on for a vast profit to broadcasters – and this relationship, at Fifa and at Concacaf and Conmebol, was the conduit for huge and endemic bribes to be paid. The Fifa ethics committee report into the ISL court proceedings, published in 2013, was also straightforward about how the payments to Havelange, Teixeira and Leoz were to be understood:
“There is no indication that any form of service was given in return,” the report noted. “These payments were apparently made via front companies in order to cover up the true recipient and are to be qualified as ‘commissions,’ known today as ‘bribes’.”
Havelange concluded the biggest sale of rights to ISL, for the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, on 26 May 1998. Selling those rights for up to eight years in the future was one of Havelange’s final acts of his monumental 24 years as the Fifa president. Just two weeks later, on 8 June 1998, his faithful general secretary and chosen successor, the charming, clever and wily politician Blatter, was elected as president.
Faced with the mountainous ISL corruption being exposed on the eve of the 2010 vote, the English FA tried to convince the BBC not to air the programme in the service of some higher patriotic duty to support the campaign for England to host the 2018 tournament. Although the merits of a World Cup in England might be said to be fairly obvious, whether the Fifa executive committee fancied sending the tournament there or not, the FA had nevertheless spent £21m on the marketing, persuasion and personal flesh-pressing. The BBC refused the request and the England bid decided to send all the Fifa executive committee members – Warner, Blazer, Leoz, Teixeira, all of them – a letter of loyalty, disowning the effort to expose the ISL corruption, describing it as “raking over allegations”.
The letter took cringing onto a whole new plane: “It has been a difficult time for Fifa,” the English FA sympathised with the executive committee, “and as a member of the football family we naturally feel solidarity with you and your colleagues. We hope England’s bid will not be judged negatively due to the activities of individual media organisations, regardless of one’s view of their conduct. We hope you appreciate that we have no control over the British media.”
Even after the FA prostrated themselves, the executive committee cheerily sent them packing from Zurich with just one vote, from Hayatou, in addition to that of the FA’s own former chairman, Geoff Thompson. Immediately after that, with the bid defeated, the FA revised its attitude to Fifa and rediscovered a little piety.
At the June 2011 congress the then FA chairman, David Bernstein, took to the platform amid silence in the room, stepping around shards of frozen hostility, and called for the presidential election to be postponed as by then only Blatter was on the ballot paper.
In response, there was a volley of unbridled sycophancy towards Blatter and attacks on the FA, the English media, which was seen as anti-Fifa, and England itself. One of the most enthusiastic critics was the former president of the Argentinian football federation (AFA), Julio Grondona, who ascended to that position in 1979, during the rule of the military junta. Grondona was one of the heftiest henchmen in Blatter’s Fifa, one of the most senior among the 24 executive committee members, a post he had assumed in 1988, moving on to become one of Fifa’s vice-presidents and occupying the key role for Blatter as chairman of the finance committee.
His contribution to the congress debate – after all the scandals –was to tell the assembled delegates: “We always have attacks from England. Mostly with lies and the support of a journalism which is more busy lying than telling the truth. Please leave the Fifa family alone!”
Hunched with all the other lying English journalists at the back of the vast Hallenstadion, I remember feeling an instinctive repulsion towards Grondona’s performance. It was not just a deeply unpleasant, dishonest and nonsensical response to the unravelling of Fifa in a major public scandal. He was a big man and there was something dark in the extremity of the reaction and the violence of the attack.
Grondona, lecturing the world and responsible for stewarding Fifa’s money, was accused in the US indictment, a year after he died in 2014, of being utterly corrupt in private. A former banker in Zurich, Jorge Luis Arzuaga, pleaded guilty to money laundering in June 2017 and confessed to channelling around £20m to Grondona and other Fifa figures in bribes from a marketing company. The indictment of Arzuaga stated that Grondona had been described as “our banker” by the marketing company and that Arzuaga had been asked to open Swiss bank accounts for him so that the illicit cash could be paid.
Arzuaga “knew it would be extremely difficult to open a bank account for [Grondona] given [Grondona’s] reputation for corruption”, so he found a way to conceal that Grondona was the recipient of the money. When Grondona was in Zurich, he would regularly meet up with Arzuaga to check how the money laundering was going.
And this encapsulates another reason why it is still hard to believe that moment came when the game was really up for these people: they were so powerful, arrogant and untouchable, for so long. Blazer was another archetype of these characteristics. I first ran into him in 2009 in Abu Dhabi. I was not there on Fifa business; I was inquiring into the ruling Al Nahyan family’s Sheikh Mansour and his far-fetched purchase of the club I grew up supporting, Manchester City. Blazer was there as the Fifa executive committee member responsible for the Club World Cup, which Abu Dhabi was hosting. On the marble floors of the Emirates Palace Hotel, Blazer, a mountainous man too large to walk by then, was cheerily zipping about on his mobility scooter, barking orders to Fifa staff. They and the local organisers in Abu Dhabi were bending to his wishes and demands, straining to assure the Fifa man that all the arrangements were to his satisfaction.
I interviewed him only out of courtesy and passing curiosity, and he regaled me with a clearly well-travelled declaration of his genius. He told me that he had made his fortune with the smiley face icon in the 1970s and had enough money to retire in his early 20s. His bullshit was so absurd I could have googled the truth right on front of him.
But I didn’t think of it. However unlikely Blazer was as an emissary of the world’s greatest sport, it didn’t occur to me that he would simply lie straight out when telling his own story. I only learned that the smiley face was a favourite fiction he cheerily span – or massive exaggeration to be precise; he had manufactured smiley face badges for the true originators, for a while – when it was reported in the brilliant book about him, American Huckster, by Mary Papenfuss and Teri Thompson. They were the New York Daily News journalists who broke the story in 2014 that Blazer had been accused of major felonies and was wearing a wire for the FBI. They wrote that Blazer’s handlers found him a surprisingly willing and able informant, who adapted with enthusiasm to the role of double-dealer and betrayer of his former long-term associates.
Piecing together the extraordinary breaching of Fifa’s omertà by the US authorities, resulting in the 2015 raids, indictments of senior Fifa figures and startling guilty pleas, it was clear that the 2011 Trinidad affair provided the first solid basis for investigation. Blazer had rapidly become implicated in allegations of further corruption and, crucially, US tax evasion. It turned out that in November 2011, just six months after the dollar bills were being handed out and stuffed down trousers in Trinidad, the Internal Revenue Service had tapped Blazer as he was trundling along 56th Street in Manhattan on his way to another dinner. Two years later in a Brooklyn courtroom Blazer pleaded guilty to bribe-taking, tax evasion and money laundering within an overall confession to racketeering. In the end, all his lies had come to that.
It is very clear too how key Blazer was to the evidence amassed for the indictment of others, how fully he sang once he was cornered. He had worked with Warner very closely since the pair realised they could marshal the votes of the smaller Concacaf nations to win the presidency and Blazer was surely the source for the charges against him, which Warner continues to deny.
In the US indictment, Warner would be accused of a lot worse than ticket profiteering. The heart of the indictment, which swelled to 27 named defendants and 236 pages in November 2015, was that contrary to all their denials over all the years, senior men in North and South American football had been paid bribes as a routine perk of the role. The allegations were supported by key guilty pleas in addition to Blazer’s, including from José Hawilla, the president of the noted South American marketing company Traffic, which had brokered the infamous 10-year sponsorship of the Brazil national team by the swoosh of Nike.
Hawilla lamented in his guilty plea that he was a lawyer who started his company legitimately, to buy TV rights to the football from the federations and confederations, and sell them for broadcast. But he told the US authorities that as far back as January 1991, when he was negotiating for Traffic to buy the rights to the Copa América, he had to do the deal with Leoz, the Paraguay and Conmebol football chief.
Hawilla’s testimony of that conversation, which he said prompted his own original sin, is key to understanding the culture of entitlement and enrichment with which Fifa was infested for so long: “In a private meeting,” the guilty plea recalled, “Leoz told Hawilla … that Hawilla would make a lot of money from the rights he was acquiring, and Leoz did not think it was fair that he [Leoz] did not also make money.”
This was the revolt of the blazers in the era of football’s mega-commercialisation: as everybody was making money around them, it would be unfair if they did not wet their beaks as well. “Leoz told Hawilla that he would only sign the contract if Hawilla agreed to pay him a bribe.”
Hawilla told the court in Brooklyn, when admitting to the criminal offences with which he was charged, including racketeering, that this was the start of his corruption. He said that he had taken on commitments on the basis of buying those Copa América rights and needed the contract to be granted by Leoz, so, “Even though I didn’t want to, I agreed to pay the bribe to that official.”
The bribes then became a standard feature of the marketing deals done for South American international football tournaments for the following 22 years, until the US authorities had taken an interest in it all and confronted Hawilla.
“After this and until 2013,” Hawilla went on, “other soccer officials came to me and those with whom I associated in business, to demand bribes to sign or renew contracts. I agreed that undisclosed bribe payments would be made to those soccer officials for contracts for the marketing rights to various tournaments and other rights associated with soccer. I agreed to make bribe and kickback payments which would be undisclosed for contracts for the Copa América, the Gold Cup, the Copa do Brasil and the sponsorship for the Brazil national team.”
The US legal documents, which are public, have redacted the name of the company which sponsored the Brazil team and it is not charged with any wrongdoing, but it is clearly identifiable as the deal with Nike. Hawilla testified that the CBF told Nike to pay Traffic a US$40m agency fee for negotiating the sponsorship and Hawilla then paid half of it, US$20m, as a kickback personally to Teixeira. This and the other charges against Teixeira remain unanswered, as he has declined to face US justice, although he can be expected to deny it all, as he has all corruption allegations through the years in Brazil.
Blatter, raging at the injustice of his own ban, as he sees it, and the whole ransacking of Fifa at his re-election congress in 2015, forever blames the US and England for being “bad losers” in the 2018 and 2022 hosting votes and of mounting the action against Fifa in response. This is a delusional view – even if true, such a response would have been futile if there was no industrial-scale corruption to find; the US authorities were really alerted to it all when stacks of dollars were being handed out in public in a Trinidad hotel. They picked people off one by one. Blatter also argues, with some justification, that the Department of Justice unfairly laid the corruption at Fifa’s Zurich gates, when in fact their evidence and allegations were mostly relating to TV deals in the American confederations – Blazer was helping himself in Manhattan.
But the idea that the corruption allegations do not focus on Fifa itself is not correct. The bleakest of all the crimes alleged in the US indictment, another for which Blazer was clearly the original source, related to the vote to host the 2010 World Cup. South Africa was defeated by one vote for the 2006 tournament; Germany winning in a process also now subject to criminal investigations, including a longstanding allegation that US$250,000 was paid to the New Zealand delegate Charles Dempsey, whose abstention delivered the numbers to Germany. Senior German football figures have said this was done, although Dempsey, who has since died, and his family always denied it.
The astonishing revelation in the centre of the US indictment was to allege that a US$10m bribe was paid by South Africa to Warner in return for his, Blazer’s and a third Concacaf executive committee member’s votes. The money was indeed paid to Warner in Trinidad, by Fifa on the instructions of the South Africa bid, for the establishment of programmes to benefit the “African diaspora,” a key legacy promised as part of the first World Cup ever to be held on the continent. No such legacy programme ever appears to have taken place. Blazer himself confessed in his guilty plea to receiving a bribe to vote for South Africa; the indictment stated that Warner only paid him US$775,000 of the agreed US$1m due to him, apparently because Warner had spent it.
The South Africa bid team and government ministers have absolutely rejected that the money paid – sent by Fifa from the 2010 World Cup budget – was a bribe. Warner is contesting extradition to the US to avoid facing this and other criminal charges in a courtroom, so has not entered a plea – but surely he can be expected not to dignify the allegation with his spit.
When Infantino was elected president of Fifa in February 2016, beating the presumed favourite, Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa, he had seemed quite engagingly disbelieving of his victory. Infantino had worked his way up the administration at Uefa, was elevated to general secretary where he had seemed capable, then when Platini fell he vaulted into the vacuum and into a campaign of indefatigable globetrotting lobbying for the opportunity of his life.
Salman, a scion in the extended ruling family of Bahrain, whose regime is accused of terribly repressing its own dissatisfied people, had made a hustings speech which seemed to preen with a sense of entitlement to power. Infantino, 45, suit hanging off him and blue tie slightly askew, had looked like an eager student by comparison. When he won on the second round of votes, he tapped his heart and repeatedly shook his head, showing that he genuinely could not believe it, that his Swiss sports administration journey had taken him to such a summit.
It was a shock, then, to hear the leaked tape which emerged of Infantino at an early Fifa council meeting, which took place before the Fifa congress in Mexico just three months later. Among the newly constituted council’s 36 senior delegates to Fifa from around world football, he was complaining bitterly and indignantly about the salary he had been offered, 1.95m CHF [£1.44m]. It was “insulting,” he said grimly, because “it was less than half what the previous president [Blatter] was earning last year.”
A plot was hatched with willing envoys to try to secure the resignation of Domenico Scala, chairman of the audit and compliance committee and architect of the post-corruption internal reconstruction reforms. Scala waved that away, then the
council sneaked a rule change through the congress, enabling it peremptorily to sack the chairs of the independent committees, which had been a key component of the new checks to corruption.
Scala immediately resigned and made a forthright warning in his statement: “With this decision, it will henceforth be possible for the council to 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. Thereby, those bodies are factually deprived of their independence … I am consternated about this decision, because it undermines a central pillar of the good governance of Fifa and it destroys a substantial achievement of the reforms.”
A year later, at the congress held in Bahrain, in a heavily protected national conference centre just a mile from the Pearl roundabout, the now demolished site where protestors were shot dead during the 2011 Arab Spring, more darkness descended.
The congress opened with a speech by Sheikh Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa, a son of the ruling King Hamad most involved with sports, who had himself warned during those protests of 2011: “Anyone who called for the fall of the regime, may a wall fall on his head.”
Infantino thanked him, for hosting Fifa in “your beautiful country”.
Just two days before the congress, Fifa had announced that the two chairs of the ethics committee, Swiss lawyer Cornel Borbély and retired German judge Hans-Joachim Eckert, would not have their terms of office renewed. After a slow and somewhat unconvincing start to their Fifa tenures, particularly by Eckert, they had taken seriously their role of enforcing an ethics code at an organisation imploding due to the exposure of corruption. They took the proceedings against Blatter and Platini over the 2m CHF paid by Fifa to Platini in 2011 for work he completed nine years earlier – both were banned for conflicts of interest and other ethics breaches and their appeals to the Court of Arbitration for Sport failed. They had taken proceedings against more senior figures and gave every sign of planning to continue doing so. Borbély, a prosecutor in his day job, was behaving like one within Fifa.
These two lawyers had been given no notice that their involvement with Fifa was being abruptly terminated; although their four-year terms were up, nothing had been said at all and they had assumed they would be continuing with their work. They only learned the news in the arrival hall of Bahrain’s tiny airport when they landed and other congress delegates in the queue told them that Fifa had made an announcement while the pair were in the air. Borbély, Fifa stated, was to be replaced by María Claudia Rojas, a Colombian lawyer; Eckert by the Greek judge Vassilios Skouris, a former president of the European Court of Justice.
Borbély and Eckert immediately called a press conference for the following day, hiring a bare room in an office block across the highway from the convention centre where the congress would be held. These men who had been the acme of restraint and discretion while working in their roles railed publicly and furiously against the decision to remove them, clearly outraged and affronted too at the lack of class in the way it had been delivered.
They revealed that they had hundreds of investigations ongoing, from the backlog of all the alleged wrongdoing, and warned that removing them so abruptly would “incapacitate” and delay the fight against corruption. There had been no handover of the work nor any suggestion of it; in fact they still had not been contacted directly by Infantino’s Fifa. It was extraordinary to walk along the highway through Bahrain’s thick May heat and find Cornel Borbély and Hans-Joachim Eckert there, reduced to such public indignation and speaking out like that, in that empty room on the 13th floor of a bog-standard office block.
It emerged later that before this abrupt removal, Borbély had initiated two investigations into Infantino’s conduct. One was into allegations that the Fifa president had interfered in the Confederation of African Football’s 2017 presidential election; the second that Infantino had understated his own campaign expenses for the Fifa presidency. Infantino denied wrongdoing in both cases. Since the replacement of Borbély and Eckert, nothing more has been heard of either of those investigations. Indeed, as they warned that day, very little has been heard of any investigation into anything, despite the assertion that there were hundreds of cases in the filing cabinets.
Miguel Maduro, an internationally respected Portuguese professor of law, was also removed as the chair of the governance committee after only eight months in the position, replaced by his former deputy, Mukul Mudgal, former chief justice of the Indian High Court. Maduro would later reveal that Infantino had put pressure on him over a decision by the committee to bar Vitaly Mutko, then a Russian deputy prime minister, from the Fifa council.
Infantino had been worried that this would damage relations with Russia and so potentially mar the organising of the 2018 World Cup, which Fifa needs to go well on every front. Maduro and his committee had insisted on barring Mutko, as an independent committee implementing Fifa’s own rule that members of the Fifa council should be politically neutral – not, like Mutko, politicians. Three distinguished members of the committee resigned in protest at Maduro’s sacking, including Navi Pillay, a former International Criminal Court judge and UN High Commissioner of Human Rights. In her resignation letter, she accused Infantino and the Fifa secretary general, Fatma Samoura, of “violating the norms and standards of good conduct” by interfering with the committee’s independence.
In his congress speech in Bahrain following the dismissals, Infantino chose not to explain them or address the alarm sounded by Eckert and Borbély the day before. Instead, he channelled the leadership and presentational style of Donald Trump, telling the delegates assembled in the hall there was too much “fake news” and “Fifa bashing” around. Invited to back down in a press conference afterwards and explain the reasoning and process a little further, he didn’t address the detail and derided Borbély and Eckert’s records.
It was dark, dispiriting and disquietingly reminiscent of the old Fifa culture which Infantino was claiming to have supplanted. It spanned the years to recall some other dreadful speeches made from the podium at these congresses, meetings of the whole world’s national football associations. It sparked the lament, as always, that these gatherings, Fifa itself and its leaders, should be an inspiration, worthy custodians of the football’s phenomenal popularity and global adherence, extraordinary history and remarkable growth.
Fifa, and Infantino himself, justified the removals when pushed by arguing that Fifa was diversifying the gender and geographical spread of appointees. An inquiry into the process, and the quality of the replacements, was subsequently conducted by Anne Brasseur, a Luxembourg representative in the Council of Europe.
In December 2017 she produced a report criticising governance at Infantino’s Fifa and the removal of these committee chairmen. Infantino had acknowledged to Brasseur that he had indeed sought to intervene with Maduro over Mutko, but argued that this was not “undue interference” and he did not believe Mutko was ineligible. He also argued that he had been concerned that barring Mutko could impact on Russia’s organisation of the World Cup and it was his duty as the Fifa president to prevent that. Brasseur was not convinced, and she also questioned the suitability of Borbely’s replacement, Rojas, to chair the ethics committee’s investigatory chamber. Brasseur pointed out that Rojas was not experienced in conducting criminal or financial investigations, and she also spoke little English or German, the languages in which most of the vast documentary evidence was written.
Brasseur’s report questioned whether the Fifa independent reform committees, introduced when endemic and mountainous corruption was being uncovered, of which Infantino’s Fifa was itself claiming to be a victim, were truly still independent. She concluded: “Regretfully, the general feeling is that the Fifa Council and Mr Infantino in particular wished to get rid of people who might have embarrassed them.”
Infantino rejected that assessment outright, instead hailing his organisation’s “pioneering reforms”. He has projected an image throughout these disappointing episodes of carrying on regardless, looking quite ruthlessly ahead to leaving his own imprint on Fifa and, it is assumed, his re-election. The ideas for a greatly expanded Club World Cup and a league of nations, landed on the confederations at a Fifa council meeting in Bogotá in March, have the feel of politics about them, and a man thinking of his legacy. Infantino, having seemed the ingénue, the relatively young man who could not believe he had made it to the head of Fifa, has seemed to take to it with grim intent.
So Fifa heads to Putin’s Russia, eight years after the vote in which so many of its former barons made a bonfire of any lingering credibility. Qatar, the tournament moved to winter due to the heat of the Gulf in summer, the country itself subject to a blockade by its neighbours in a fierce regional power struggle, is nevertheless still scheduled as the host for 2022. The football itself has always been Fifa’s greatest achievement and its salvation too – clouds over the world governing body dissolve as the World Cup’s beauty and epic scale takes hold of a global audience. As soon as the players take the field they will render it hard to believe all over again, that it was not all a dream or a movie, that it did all really happen: the dawn arrests, the guilty pleas, the banning of Blatter himself, the falls of so many chiefs, after so much lording it and so much denial, for so long.