By Tony Attwood, based on “L’avenir s’annonce radieux” in the Swiss newspaper, Le Matin.
As you may know, the UK media has a general agreement not to comment on Fifa corruption matters, at least until they explode, for two reasons. First because doing so might damage the image of the FA and the national teams, which accredit the media’s journalists to cover their games on TV, radio and in the press. Second because British people are not interested in foreign stuff.
So when Fifa news arises, it crosses Europe, but stops at the Channel, leaving a few of us to do the translations. Which is ok when the original language is French – as this one is.
In an interview in the Swiss newspaper Le Matin on Sunday Gianni Infantino, head of Fifa was asked a simple opening question: “With all the news surrounding football, are you a happy president?”
Given the endless scandal concerning Fifa corruption, the winding up of the ethics committee, the pay rises for staff, the blockade of Qatar, and the slavery allegations in that country seeing their way through various courts in relation to the building of stadia in Qatar etc etc, you might expect him to pause. But no. Instead he said,
“Yes of course. But I am also a president focused on his work, whose goal is always to work for the best interests of football, with serenity and coolness.”
Next he was asked about the challenges he faces, and he spoke of “Fifa reforms” and the world cup but did not mention Qatar. When that was brought up he said, “The essential role of Fifa, as I understand it, is to deal with football and not to interfere in geopolitics. Nevertheless, it is true that Fifa must remain attentive to what is happening. We are therefore watching closely the evolution of the situation. We are also in regular contact with the highest authorities of Qatar and the organizing committee.”
In short a holding statement saying nothing. Likewise when asked “Is the 2022 World Cup in Qatar in danger?” the answer was a straight “No” and that was that.
Except that the journalist who did the interview was rather cheeky this time and retorted that answer, “To govern is to foresee. So did you even think of a plan B?”
Mr Fifa responded “I am confident that the region will return to a standardized situation. The World Cup is in 2022. In five years.”
With that swashed away Patrick Oberli, asking the questions on behalf of Le Matin, turned to the scandal of the ethics committee. He asked if the new committee was already at work to which the reply came, “Yes. But having said that, I would like to point out that the Fifa Ethics Committee is an independent body and I do not interfere in their work, let alone monitor it. ” [This from the man who led the coup to overthrown the Ethics Committee]. He then went on to praise Mr Skouris who is head of the ethics commission.
To which Mr Oberli replied… “Nevertheless, the non-re-election of Cornel Borbély and Hans-Joachim Eckert created controversy in particular in Switzerland, Germany and England. Do you understand that?”
And the reply from Infantino was, “Yes, I can understand it. Because everyone wants to work for Fifa. It’s such a prestigious institution.” And he laughed.
But the journalist, not being part of the coterie that bows down to Fifa retorted, “But seriously, at the end of the Congress, you had presented this change as a normal process in the life of the organization. Yet if a team in place gives satisfaction, no one would have had the idea to change. Were there any pressures?”
The reply was wholly unsatisfactory. “Fifa is a global organization and I see it as such. It must take into account a geographically equitable representation of the composition of its committees and working groups. In addition, those with the skills required to hold these positions on the Ethics Committee are not only concentrated in Germany or German-speaking Switzerland.
“Let us put things in perspective. Previously, the president of Fifa was Swiss; The Chairman of the Audit and Compliance Committee was Swiss; The Chairman of the Disciplinary Committee was Swiss; The President of the Ethics Committee’s Investigation Chamber was Swiss; The President of the Trial Chamber of the Ethics Commission was German. Is it representative of the world?
“Fifa is a global organization and its universal character is its DNA. It’s like organizing a World Cup. You can not always play at the same place. I think Congress, more than ever, has taken this principle into account in these overwhelming majority appointments.”
(Actually I think if I had been there I would have said something about the world wide corruption of Fifa and the fact that the Ethics Committee had just issued a really hard hitting report, but the interviewer went down a different route).
“Preparation was necessary to be able to present new candidates, if only to obtain their consent. Who made the contacts and who made the selection? You?”
Infantino became avuncular. “Contrary to what has been written, it is not I, the president of Fifa, who appoints the new members in his own corner. These persons were proposed, according to the procedure, by the confederations. [In short, a coup]. By the way, I would say that we have a model of democratic functioning here. Everyone is asked to come forward with candidates. Profiles are then reviewed by the Council, which makes proposals to Congress. Different criteria are taken into account: professional qualifications, linguistic knowledge and, finally, a balanced geographical distribution. This latter criterion was ardently desired by the Council. Objectively, it had not been sufficiently respected in the past.”
And still the journalist continued: “Cornel Borbély and Hans-Joachim Eckert did not hide that they were angry with you. In these columns, Mr. Borbély called for political intervention, Swiss or international. What do you think?”
Infantino now tried to laugh it off. “What next? Ask for my execution in public place? Seriously, we have to put things back in their place. After four years, their mandates were coming to an end. These gentlemen knew, when they arrived at Fifa, that they would not sit for life. The sole owners of Fifa are the federations. It is not the President, the Council, nor the members of the committees. Federations decide.”
And that of course is the problem. The Federations have been shown time and again to be willing and able to elect to their presidencies corrupt men. So it goes.
Patrick Oberli continued to probe. “To your knowledge, how is the transition between the two teams going? According to Cornel Borbély, “hundreds of files” are open …”
“I do not know. I repeat: I do not interfere in the work of the ethics commission,” said Infantino.
Next question: “How do you react when Cornel Borbély, like others, say that their evictions constitute “the end of the process of reforms of Fifa?”
The reply showed total denial: “Frankly, I can not imagine that he could have said that. How can one believe that it is the sole repository of Fifa’s reforms? A man of his quality should not allow himself to be so boastful.”
And still Mr Oberli pushed.
“Did the fact that the Ethics Committee opened several pre-investigations against you influenced your position in this matter?”
Infantino: “These pre-enquiries are the best proof of the independence of this committee! In the end, it was the position of the Council, and then of the Congress, that prevailed. And not mine.”
Patrick Oberli: “With the changes to the Ethics Commission, do you think that the famous Garcia report, on the attribution of the 2018 World Cups to Russia and 2022 in Qatar, is more likely to be published?”
Infantino: “Personally, I have repeatedly requested the publication of this report, including with the support of the Council. I really hope that once the legal reserves are resolved, it will take place. While knowing, of course, that this is a decision that belongs to the Ethics Commission.”
And so there we have the circle. Infantino moved out the key players on the Ethics Commission. Now with them gone he says he has constantly asked for publication of the Garcia report into how Russia and Qatar got the world cups. And of course there is no one left in Fifa to refute this – in removing the ethics committee Infantino has removed the evidence.
Patrick Oberli “A few days before the Manama Congress, the name of Sheikh Ahmad Al-Sabah, an influential member of the Fifa Council and the IOC, emerged on the sidelines of a fresh FBI investigation into corruption at Fifa. Although he was not named in the indictment, his resignation from the Council was very rapid. Do you know why? Did you speak to him?”
Infantino: “No. This is a personal decision, which should not have been easy to take for him. But it is also an act that honours him. Because by doing so, he avoided any controversy likely to harm Fifa.”
Now this is an interesting new twist. A man who possibly was corrupt resigns so that no harm comes to Fifa? No, Fifa will always be harmed by the corruption of those who have run it in the past, no matter when it emerges.
Patrick Oberli: “Until now, the FBI’s investigations were limited to the American continent. With this new affair, they overflow into Asia. Are you afraid that they are still extending?”
Infantino: Whatever happens, we are ready to work with the various authorities. I told him at the last Congress. I will continue to be firm in the fight against corruption: people of this type no longer have a place in Fifa. And I really thank the Swiss, American and international authorities for the hard work in this direction.”
Oberli: After 15 months of presidency, the public and the media are comparing you more and more to Sepp Blatter, your predecessor. Does that annoy you?
Infantino laughed this one off, saying that the two men were from different regions of Switzerland. It is not a joke that is easy to translate.
Patrick Oberli: “By 2016, Fifa had revealed a bonus system of several tens of millions of francs, benefiting a small circle of leaders, like Messrs Blatter and Valcke. In addition to the announcement effect, have legal and other measures been taken?”
Infantino: “Yes of course. With the internal control structures and the separation of powers, such a system is no longer possible. That’s the first thing. Then, legal proceedings are under way.”
Patrick Oberli “In what way?”
Infantino: “I can not tell you more.”
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