“Birds of a feather flock together.” Aesop
When Sepp Blatter gave an interview to the Tass news agency recently it made headlines everywhere. The Football Association chairman, Greg Dyke, even took what Blatter had said to the British parliament. The widespread outrage arose from Blatter’s claim that he had intended to stitch up the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding in favour of the US and Russian World Cups.
“It was agreed that we go to Russia because it’s never been in Russia, eastern Europe, and for 2022 we go back to America,” Blatter had said. How any of this came as a surprise to anyone – given that Blatter had turned his 17-year presidency of FIFA into a personal platform in his vain effort to win a Nobel Peace Prize – is extraordinary, but apparently it did.
Personally I thought something else that interview contained to be far more interesting. It was what Blatter had to say about the UEFA general secretary, Gianni Infantino, himself now a candidate for the vacant FIFA presidency. “I should like him,” said Blatter, “because he’s coming from the village where I’m coming from.”
Infantino may not be hewn from the same mountainside as Blatter – he is the son of Italian immigrants to Switzerland – but if what Blatter said is true, then he was nurtured at the bosom of the same, tiny, 200-inhabitant village as was the arch-politican of FIFA. Infantino has certainly proved himself to have learned from Blatter’s political skills. Faced with a crisis at UEFA when his president, Michel Platini, was evicted from Nyon upon a 90-day provisional suspension from all football activity, the Swiss turned the situation to his personal advantage.
Having set its stall by Platini’s presidential bid, UEFA did not know whom to support, so its 45-year-old general secretary humbly “agreed to stand”. Now he could be poised to take over world football altogether. Certainly Infantino is taking it seriously and his lobbying has borne some fleshy fruit.
“We have spoken with Gianni,” said the Conmebol president, Juan Angel Napout in an official confederation statement on 27 November. “We will vote as a bloc. It is decided.” Notwithstanding the litany of arrests and resignations in national associations in South America amid the US Department of Justice’s investigation into football bodies’ activities, that region’s support for Infantino’s presidential candidacy would be a tremendous fillip for him. (If indeed such support can be held together on February 26.) But what kind of man would be taking over at FIFA were he to win?
Paramount among Infantino’s qualities is his intelligence. He is a qualified lawyer and a noted polyglot. He has a ready smile and is certainly charismatic in all of the many languages he speaks. He enjoys the limelight, having been the regular host of UEFA’s Champions League and Europa League draws.
But the bulk of Infantino’s work has been behind the curtain at UEFA. He, along with his deputy Theodore Theodoridis and, a good deal of the time, the UEFA treasurer Mario Lefkaritis, worked hard for their president to bolster his political supporter base among the various federations in Europe and beyond. Like Blatter when he transformed himself from João Havelange’s general secretary into FIFA’s top dog, all those hard yards and that glad-handing as Platini’s proxy are now paying off as Infantino puts himself forward for football’s top job.
But his record is not impervious to criticism. Take the unmistakeable presence at the 2015-16 Champions League draw Infantino compered of the Olympiacos president, Evangelos Marinakis. Big, bearded and brooding, he was impossible to overlook. Equally unmissable should have been the fact that only two months previously Marinakis had been banned from all football activity by an Athens criminal court.
The Olympiacos owner is, as UEFA and Infantino know well, under investigation for allegedly heading a match-fixing ring that has held Greek professional football in its grip for years [see related articles 1 & 2 below]. Last 5 November, Marinakis and Olympiacos were fined €300,000 by the Sports Professional Committee in Greece after he breached the terms of his court-ordered football ban.
Olympiacos had been cleared in a second match-fixing investigation, known as Koriopolis, (in which Asteras features very heavily). But there are signs their acquittal in that process could be reconsidered after the Greek Supreme Court’s prosecutor reportedly took an interest last month in claims that two of the judges in that case had been bribed to leave Marinakis in the clear. [See related article 3 below.]
Infantino will know all this well because his closest lieutenant, Theodoridis, is the son of Marinakis’s closest lieutenant, the Olympiacos vice-president Savvas Theodoridis. As UEFA’s former director of international relations, Theodoridis junior will be instrumental in Infantino’s political ambitions, just as he was those of Platini. Which might explain why Platini spent time by Theodoridis’s side at his 60th birthday and at his wedding day on the Greek luxury island of Mykonos.
UEFA’s investigation into the sinister goings-on in Greece, in which the business premises of a FIFA referee who refused to be cowed by the corruptors were bombed [related article 2 below] was, frankly, slapdash. When I asked about why UEFA had chosen not to investigate the allegations into Marinakis to their fullest extent, I was given the following statement: “Until today, the only information that UEFA has in its possession refers to a situation in which the President, Mr. Evangelos Marinakis, is investigated by the Public Prosecutor in relation to their alleged involvement in a scheme aimed at securing Olympiacos FC winning the Greek Superleague title. At this stage of the proceedings, neither the Hellenic Football Federation nor the criminal courts in Athens have rendered any final decision against Mr Marinakis or the club. The legal status of the procedures in Greece is therefore still unclear and completely open.”
Personally, I find that explanation very weak. The criminal investigation into Blatter, in which Platini became embroiled, was a long way from its conclusion but FIFA’s ethics committee still moved to ban them both. If on the balance of probabilities (the lower, civil threshold required of UEFA’s disciplinary processes, as opposed to the beyond-reasonable-doubt standard of a criminal trial) UEFA thought there was something in the prosecutors’ findings, it would be well within its right to ban Olympiacos. In the event, its investigation was little more than a whitewash.
UEFA seemed to go to great lengths to maintain Olympiacos’s participation in the Champions League, likewise their co-accused Asteras Tripolis in the Europa League. I know this because I have seen a key report of the UEFA Ethics and Disciplinary Inspector (who, cosily, works for the legal firm belonging to the son of the UEFA vice-president, Angel María Villar Llona) into the activities of Asteras Tripolis. based on an untested statement from the Hellenic Football Federation, whose own former president and legal adviser are among the accused in the match-fixing case. [See related article 3 below.] The laissez-faire investigation by the Inspector into Asteras’s parallel activities set the precedent that permitted Olympiacos free passage into this season’s Champions League.
Naturally, this was challenged by Panathinaikos and PAOK, who have been appalled by the allegations of criminality in their domestic league, through the Court of Arbitration for Sport. But rather than to argue the facts of the case, UEFA managed instead to achieve its dismissal on the basis that the two Greek clubs were not “interested parties” and therefore not legitimate appellants. The two Greek clubs’ complaint having been thrown out by CAS, Olympiacos and Asteras were duly admitted to European competition.
Now there is no suggestion there was any political interference from Theodoridis or his boss, Infantino, into the Ethics and Disciplinary Inspector’s investigation. “Thedoridis is not member of any of these two bodies and does not therefore have any involvement in these decisions,” added UEFA in its statement.
But UEFA’s structure does provide the opportunity for internal pressure to be applied to the ethics department should a senior executive seek to apply it. Unlike FIFA’s much-criticised ethics committee, which was set up to be independent of the body it scrutinises (though some believe it is anything but), UEFA’s Ethics and Disciplinary Inspectors do not even pretend to be independent of UEFA. They are contracted to it, which is an appalling failure of corporate governance in Infantino’s organisation.
(A spokesman for UEFA told me that it is “proud of the work carried out by the Control, Ethics and Disciplinary Body” which it says is “independent within the organisation.” Which is of course very different to being independent from the organisation.)
UEFA’s executive committee said in the statement announcing Infantino’s FIFA candidacy: “We believe that Gianni Infantino has all of the qualities required to tackle the major challenges ahead and to lead the organisation on a path of reform to restore FIFA’s integrity and credibility.” Yet the ethics structures at UEFA, which he has overseen for the past six years as general secretary, simply do not stand up to integrity or credibility tests. Indeed, it was the UEFA members of the FIFA executive committee whom the Independent Governance Committee’s chairman, Mark Pieth, accused in his final report of kyboshing his proposed reforms.
At the end of last year Premier League side Arsenal were fighting for their lives in the Champions League group that contained Olympiacos and Dinamo Zagreb. The latter’s president, Zdravko Mamic, was arrested last November, accused of tax evasion relating to transfer fees that were due to his club but allegedly diverted into his personal accounts. Also arrested was Damir Vrbanovic, the executive director of the Croatian football federation, whose vice-president Mamic is.
Meanwhile the federation’s president, Davor Suker, has been forced to deny links with match-fixers. The German broadcaster ARD claimed prosecutors had evidence of Suker’s links with Ante Sapina, one of the key figures in the 2009 Bochum scandal that rocked Bundesliga football. “I was never in my life involved in any activity aimed at setting up or influencing the result of a football match,” Suker said in June.
Suker was one of those UEFA executive-committee members to whom Infantino owes his FIFA candidacy after they unanimously supported his decision to stand. Suker is also someone who harbours ambitions of his own for a seat on the FIFA ex-co. Perhaps this is why, when he set up his @Gianni_2016 Twitter account, the first account Infantino followed – before even the UEFA or UEFA press office, which were numbers two and three on his list – was the Croatian football federation.
“There are people in Europe, especially in the northern parts, who say that if they bring Infantino, that’s the end of Europe,” Blatter told Tass. “Most of the national associations don’t like Infantino.”
If you judge a man by the company he keeps, perhaps that is understandable.
1. Greek football corruption is a cancer at the heart of the system: http://www.insideworldfootball.com/world-football/europe/16925-special-report-greek-corruption-cancer-reaches-to-the-heart-of-the-system
2. Greek match-fixers run a reign of violent terror: http://www.insideworldfootball.com/world-football/europe/16933-greek-corruption-match-fixers-run-reign-of-violent-terror-from-inside-football
3. Greek Supreme Court investigates claims of corrupt influence in Koriopolis decision: http://www.insideworldfootball.com/world-football/europe/18435-greek-match-fixing-corruption-claims-deepen-as-judges-accused-of-accepting-bribes?highlight=WyJncmVlayIsInN1cHJlbWUiLCJjb3VydCIsInN1cHJlbWUgY291cnQiXQ==
4. UEFA ethics chief clears Greek club: http://www.insideworldfootball.com/world-football/europe/17247-exclusive-uefa-ethics-chiefs-clears-greeks-in-match-fixing-scandal-for-europa-league
Journalist and broadcaster Matt Scott wrote the Digger column for The Guardian newspaper for five years and is now a columnist for Insideworldfootball. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.