By Andrew Warshaw and Paul Nicholson
August 22 – Did he jump, was he pushed or was his departure actually entirely mutual? Whatever the real story behind Marco Villiger’s exit from FIFA immediately after his summer vacation, questions are inevitably being asked about how the organisation could afford to lose its most astute legal brain.
What is becoming clear is that Villiger was involved in an internal battle that ultimately he was never likely to win. Villiger was a powerful player in FIFA’s world – both internally and externally. Arguably, from an institutional perspective, more powerful and certainly more respected than the president himself. It was a real-world influence that dwarfed that of the organisation’s general secretary Fatma Samoura (theoretically his line manager) who is too often (sadly) mis-labelled/introduced as the most powerful woman in world sport.
FIFA’s president Gianni Infantino (who face re-election next year) would have been acutely aware of Villiger’s influence and importance from the day he stormed into the Zurich HQ to save the world (and football) in May 2015. But the reality was that the real saving had already been done. Without Villiger FIFA might not have survived the assault by the US justice authorities on the institution, the main beneficiary of which appears to be Infantino himself.
If a decision had to be made between Villiger and Samoura there was really only ever going to be one choice for Infantino. Better to go with what you can control rather than keep a potentially dangerous and talented exec who could become an opponent. Passing Villiger’s departure off (privately or otherwise) as the much-needed passing of the old guard is an over-simplification of FIFA’s confused and conflicted reality.
But Villiger’s departure is more than just a managerial change with part of the answer for his leaving being in the man himself. One former FIFA insider suggested that the ‘attrition’ of working within the organisation and Infantino’s generally un-empowering leadership would likely have taken its toll on even the most thick skinned.
With the latest FIFA ethics code rewrite having been widely interpreted by observers outside FIFA as a ‘code for cover-up’, Villiger would likely have been aware that his own integrity and reputation – never really in question before – was facing some serious damage. If it wasn’t the straw that broke the camel’s back, then it certainly would have added to the burden.
Although he rarely appeared in front of the media, FIFA’s long-time legal director was not only the lead contact in the organisation with US justice department investigators during the FifaGate corruption scandal but was the go-to figure whenever the organisation found itself in the proverbial dog doo-doo, unsure which way to turn.
Villiger was by no means universally popular and was often accused of being too over-zealous for his own good. When Samoura was reported to the ethics committee over an alleged conflict of interest during the 2026 World Cup bidding contest – a case that was quickly dropped – Villiger was strongly rumoured to have been involved in the process, refusing to drop the case (or cover-up) before an investigation was complete.
Although it has never been disclosed who filed the complaint, members of a FIFA World Cup evaluation taskforce – said to have included Villiger – were reported to have discovered an undeclared family link between Samoura and the former Liverpool forward El Hadji Diouf, who worked in an ambassadorial role for the Moroccan bid. The links were unproven but due process was followed. The internal war at that stage was in its final battles.
Tellingly, it was Samoura who announced Villiger’s departure to the outside world, trumpeting his work (penny for her real thoughts) by saying he “consistently demonstrated his expertise and professionalism, as well as his dedication to this great organisation.”
While Villiger’s contribution to FIFA’s reform process cannot be over-estimated, former president Sepp Blatter was one of the few figureheads who dared to criticise him in public. Blatter clearly became disillusioned with someone he considered a loyal confidant and told reporters earlier this year that he was “totally disappointed” with Villiger, who he implied had undermined his presidency by refusing to share detailed knowledge of FIFA’s business, not least the so-called “gentleman’s agreement” with Michel Platini which ultimately did for Blatter.
“All contracts went on his desk and he was the secretary of all the committees of FIFA,” Blatter said of Villiger, only for him to be promoted when Infantino was elected Blatter’s successor . “He (Villiger) was the man who had all the power and Gianni was intelligent enough to keep him.”
And there, perhaps, lies the irony. Did Villiger simply know too much for Infantino’s liking? Many with in-depth knowledge of the workings of FIFA under Blatter’s successor suggest this could be the case.
Or could it be that FIFA felt there was simply no longer any need for such a probing legal eagle given that the organisation, according to Infantino at least, is now “bullet proof” when it comes to contentious issues like World Cup bidding? But like in all arms races, there is generally someone with a bigger gun just around the corner and the spectre of US investigation still looms if recent US Justice Department statements are to be believed.
Whatever the behind-the-scenes discussions that led to the end of his 12-year stint, Villiger will be a hard man to replace or follow. Not only will FIFA have to find a new legal chief (unconfirmed rumours suggest UEFA’s own legal guru Alasdair Bell may be in line to move from Nyon to Zurich) but also potentially a new deputy general secretary, a position Villiger held jointly with Infantino appointee Zvonimir Boban.
The bottom line, perhaps, is that Infantino remains ever-determined, rather like a football manager, to bring his own people. With the ethics department and most of the senior administration now run by those appointed or elected under his presidency but having lost much of their momentum, Villiger was in effect the last man standing. He was the legal leader that oversaw the forced exit of so many high ranking, high powered and well connected executives and elected officials. That is quite some CV.
Whilst it would be irresponsible to assume that some kind of personal internal dispute directly caused his abrupt exit, it is not too fanciful to surmise that he perhaps felt he could no longer cope with some of the autonomous decisions taken during Infantino’s leadership.
No-one is indispensable but on the surface his exit seems a brave move for an organisation trying to find its feet after being so discredited for so long. His severance package will likely need to have quite a lot of zeros on it.
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