Is Fifa president Gianni Infantino turning out to be just as bad as predecessor Sepp Blatter?

When Zlatan Ibrahimovic needed a new agent, Dutch journalist Thijs Slegers recommended David Beckham’s representatives and Mino Raiola to the Swede. “He’s a mafioso,” said Slegers of Raiola. That ‘mafioso’ is today at the centre of Fifa’s fight against corruption — or perhaps the grotesque subplot to Paul Pogba’s record transfer to Manchester, with his agent, once a pizza boy at a Dutch restaurant, benefitting from his player’s bountiful move, was simply Fifa spin.

At present there is an enquiry — ‘Fifa requested information from Manchester United on the transfer’ — but not a full-fledged investigation into Raiola’s dealings and portrayed serial conflict of interests as he tergiversated between his player and both clubs. Fifa wants to be seen as a flag-bearer against corruption, a crusader against the excesses that so dominate the modern game.

Fifa president Gianni Infantino gives a speech during the 67th Ordinary CONMEBOL Congress. AFP

Fifa president Gianni Infantino gives a speech during the 67th Ordinary CONMEBOL Congress. AFP

The story hit the headlines. It was both a timely and convenient diversion from Fifa’s new perfidious push to self-regulate in-house corruption, removing the German judge Hans-Joachim Eckert and the Swiss prosecutor Cornel Borbely from the adjudicatory and investigatory chambers of the Independent Ethics Committee on Tuesday, two days before the 67th Fifa Congress in Manama, Bahrain.

They both decried Fifa’s decision. “It appears,” they charged in a veiled attack at Fifa president Gianni Infantino “that the heads of Fifa have attached greater weight to their own and political interests than to the long-term interests of Fifa.”

The pair was unequivocal — this “puts an end to reform efforts,” they said. The move was not just a disquieting twist to a long reform process at Fifa HQ, but an act of skullduggery by Infantino. The president had succeeded in the ultimate purge: fire those who want to investigate you. The Swiss-Italian was a visionary, because hours later US president Donald Trump did the same. The modus operandi of ‘Fifantino’ was straightforward: dismantle Fifa’s limited governance apparatus with surgical precision.

It was an Arabian night of long knives. Chairman of the governance and review committee Miguel Maduro, who blocked Vitaly Mutko's re-election bid to the Fifa Council due to Mutko’s ineligibility as deputy prime minister in Moscow, also became a persona non grata.

Fifa’s list of undesirables has been growing, leaving the organisation’s power structure intact. The pyramid is simple: Infantino and his Fifa Council, once a select group of self-serving, whisky-sodden football officials in the form of the all-mighty and now discredited Executive Committee, decide the future of international football. The Congress enacts those decisions.

But the inexorable conveyor belt of scandals, including this week’s integrity cleansing, confirmed the woebegone and irremediable governance culture in Zurich — not even a modicum of ethical virtue remains at the Zürichberg. Cue an apposite question: is Infantino the new Joseph Blatter?

Flashback to 2015 and one of the great dramas of our time — the denouement of Blatter’s reign as Fifa president. At last, after 34 years at Fifa, first as secretary-general, then as president, Blatter resigned. Thus entered Infantino, risen in the shadow of, and moulded by Michel Platini, the projected prince royal at Fifa.

His first few days in office reeked of the familial and facile: he reassured both Qatar and Russia that they would host the World Cup and drummed the beat for a 40-team World Cup. He didn’t pretend to be a statesman, who wanted to clean up the beautiful game, but tilted towards the prototype of a shrewd football administrator.

At his election, a protester held up a placard outside Zurich’s Hallenstadion with the words: “Make Fifa great again. Vote Trump.” It was a witty indictment of Fifa and its institutional crisis. Inside the cavernous hall, Infantino addressed his constituency with an acceptance speech. “We will restore the image of Fifa, and everyone in the world will applaud us, and all of you, for what we do in Fifa in the future,” said the new Fifa president.

Infantino was hitting all the right notes. Transparency, responsibility, good governance and leadership were his buzzwords. The organisation’s global membership approved a set of new reforms, including a term limit of 12 years for the Fifa president, stricter integrity checks, more female representation, a Fifa Council instead of the all-powerful Fifa Executive Committee (who awarded the World Cup to bidding countries), an audit of the 209 national federations’s finances, and disclosure of the Fifa president’s compensation.

In its final report the Fifa Reform Committee noted that Fifa needed to undertake “significant modification to its institutional structure and operational processes […] to prevent corruption, fraud, self-dealing and to make the organisation more transparent and accountable.”

Accountability and transparency were not just buzzwords, but they were also to become mantras at Fifa. The president’s powers were to be limited with a more ambassadorial than executive role. Pursuant to Article 35 of the Fifa Statutes, the president has no right to vote at the Congress and has one ordinary vote in the Council. He can still however set the agenda of the Council.

But over a year in at Fifa and the new president is defined — not by his intangible reform claims — by what he has actually done so far. His praxis has been Blatter-esque, his attitude one of a power junkie, desperate for re-election in 2019. Infantino has already delivered on his manifesto of bread and games — read money in Fifa parley — and in the process killed the World Cup by expanding Fifa’s prime asset and its golden goose to a mammoth 48-team format.

It was the aggrandisement of another sporting event, and self-aggrandisement by Fifa, but one that is projected to bring in $6.495 billion and a profit of $640 million come the 2026 World Cup when the new format will be introduced. Infantino has applied a tried and tested formula: expand and cash in. It’s a full-proof manner of consolidating his power base in the vote-rich confederations of Africa and Asia, and ensuring the financial future of Fifa.

CAF president Issa Hayatou (L), Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba and Fifa president Gianni Infantino (R). AFP

CAF president Issa Hayatou (L), Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba and Fifa president Gianni Infantino (R). AFP

Often Infantino has resembled a Swiss demon from the past. In March the Fifa president may have played a part in Ahmad Ahmad’s defenestration of longstanding, global football powerbroker Issa Hayatou as president of CAF, the Confederation of African Football. Infantino visited South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Rwanda, Chad, Ghana, Niger and Mauritania. His right hand Fifa secretary general Fatma Samoura also toured the continent. They attended the birthday party of the Zimbabwean federation president Philip Chiyangwa, Ahmad’s campaign leader.

In public, Infantino maintained his neutrality, but at the party he danced alongside Chiyangwa, a close ally of Robert Mugabe. The little-known Ahmad, once a minister of fishing in his native Madagascar, rose to power presumably with the help of Infantino’s invisible hand.

In the future Infantino may enjoy the support of the majority of CAF’s members, a huge voting block in Fifa politics. The African confederation is the organisation’s largest regional confederation with 54 votes. The murky morass of CAF politics highlighted a system of patronage, pork-barrel politics and double deals that has fed the Fifa culture for decades and has come to define modern football officialdom.

Not much has changed then at Fifa under Infantino. As an entity, football’s governing body has little accountability. Fifa has a formal accountability to Swiss law under its articles and an accountability to its sponsors. Fifa’s tainted image does have the corporate world alarmed. In recent weeks, Fifa audit committee member Richard Lai pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy and Kuwaiti ‘kingmaker’ Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah was also implicated.

Commercial backers have been far — Qatar, Russia and China — and few — Alfa Bank, Wanda and Hisense. Infantino’s true test is to bring on board multinationals that are not Qatari, Russian or Chinese. Last week the high hierarchy at Fifa trumpeted a grand welcome to Qatar Airways to fill the airline sponsorship category that had been vacant for more than two years. The deal was however not a surprise, because the airliner is the state-owned carrier of the 2022 World Cup hosts.

And yet it spoke of Infantino’s cunning to disclose the deal timely as to obfuscate Fifa’s manifold problems in the commercial sponsorship arena, akin to the Pogba transfer enquiry obscuring the ousting of Fifa’s ethics chiefs. Not that Eckert was a saint. The German didn’t allow for the publication of Michael Garcia’s report, the former United States attorney whose investigations penetrated deep into the bidding process and awarding of the right to host the 2018 and 2022 Fifa World Cups. With the departure of Eckert and Borbely, the last two persons with deep knowledge of the Garcia Report have been removed from Fifa.

Infantino is a smart operator, calculated and shrewd, always navigating his way through the tangled web of football politics. He is ‘astute,’ perhaps more so than his predecessor, who just controlled Fifa by allowing his people to be corrupt. Infantino’s great power grab is the introduction of the ‘Bureau’. The Council was already his own Politburo, but this new select club — membership is restricted to Infantino and the six regional confederations presidents — has impressive competences: decisions need not be ratified by the 37-strong council.

And so, it seems that Fifa and good governance remain incompatible. Colombian prosecutor Maria Claudia Rojas and Greek judge Vassilios Skouris, who was head of the European Court of Justice for 12 years, will replace Borbely and Eckert. But what can one expect from these appointments? In the US President Trump will seek to instal his ‘own’ FBI director. Perhaps even Sepp Blatter would wince at this state of affairs.

Updated Date: May 11, 2017 12:36 PM

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