It isn’t every day that a ban by FIFA’s ethics watchdogs is overturned on appeal. Many have tried and failed to clear their names, not least Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini.
Which makes last week’s victory by Saoud Al-Mohannadi, the Qatari official disqualified at the last moment from standing as an Asian member of FIFA’s ruling Council, all the more unusual. Even, say those in the know, a watershed moment.
In a rare defeat for FIFA’s ethics apparatus, which has seen plenty of sanctions reduced but hardly any overturned, FIFA’s appeals body ruled that Al-Mohannadi was wrongly barred for one year last November for allegedly failing to cooperate with a previous, unspecified ethics investigation.
On paper, when compared to some of the more notorious figures who have been sanctioned for wrongdoing, Al-Mohannadi’s case looks like small fry.
The reality, however, is very different and represents a potentially serious blow to the reputation of the FIFA ethics chamber right at the time when the hawks are circling and are poised to swoop, if rumours are to be believed, on chief investigator Cornel Borbely and German judge Hans-Joachim Eckert.
Speculation is rife that Gianni Infantino, who spent the first part of his presidency under global scrutiny over various allegations of financial impropriety, is orchestrating a move to replace both ethics figureheads at next month’s FIFA CongresS in Bahrain when their respective terms expire.
FIFA Secretary-general Fatma Samoura has dismissed all talk of such a plan but last week’s landmark appeal decision will hardly have helped their cause.
Invariably, FIFA’s appeals committee, which is chaired by the Bermudan Larry Mussenden, backs ethics judgements, at least up to a point. Not this time. To its credit, FIFA’s appeals procedure has been seen to be robust enough to pursue alleged ethics violations on face value and in a self-critical way.
Although Fifa have given few details of why al-Mohannadi’s ban was overturned, InsideWorldFootball has seen documentation summing up why the appeals committee cleared the Qatari which says there was “no motive to lie and mislead” FIFA investigators and that there was insufficient evidence “to support the finding that Mr Al-Mohannadi provided incomplete statements.”
So what does that say about the supposedly independent ethics process? Whether or not it suggests investigators did not do their job properly, it is certainly a wake-up call.
While those who wilfully breach FIFA’s ethics code need to be punished for believing they can act with impunity, so this particular case will send a message to those carrying out investigations that they will in future be scrutinised and held to a higher standard in terms of processing evidence to support accusations.
Suspicions may also intensify that ethics officials are not immune from adopting a self-serving agenda. Everyone knows the ethics committee is under pressure to produce results but legitimate questions will now be asked as to whether it at times goes too far.
It is understood, for instance, that Al-Mohannadi, a vice-president of the Asian Football Confederation and of his national association, co-operated fully with the proceedings – unlike many of those previously prosecuted by the ethics committee. And that almost all the evidence on which the ethics committee based their judgement was provided by him. In other words, he had nothing to hide.
If that is the case, whatever the ins and outs, the worrying issue is whether or not investigators cherry-picked the information provided in order to support the original charges and suit their own needs. Put it another way. If you are an investigator and you know your judgements are going to be rubber-stamped, it allows you to take liberties you otherwise might not.
Al-Mohannadi has not yet made any official comment but in a statement from his US-based legal team, Larry Spiegel, partner in Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, said: “We are gratified by the appeal committee’s well-reasoned decision.”
Meanwhile, although he is not on the new candidate list for the rescheduled AFC elections in May to select the region’s FIFA Council representatives, Al-Mohannadi is not giving up hope. It is understood options are being explored for him to be parachuted back into contention even though the deadline has passed, a unique scenario but perhaps the fairest outcome given the circumstances.
Andrew Warshaw is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball and was formerly Sports Editor of the European. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org