Comment: Did FIFA and Infantino just pull up the drawbridge as criminal investigators circle?

By Paul Nicholson

FIFA president Gianni Infantino’s insistence that he will continue in post and brazen it out in face of the criminal investigation into his own behaviour – repeat, CRIMINAL investigation into his own behaviour – is no small thing. On multiple levels.

Up to this point Infantino has tried to pass off the growing pressure around his undocumented meetings with Swiss Attorney General Michael Lauber as frivolous local politics – a Swiss thing that should be ignored. Infantino argues that is it quite normal for a FIFA president to engage with prosecutors worldwide as they investigate football’s crooked executives and elected officials. And it is hard to have too much issue with that.

But that isn’t what this is about – and Infantino knows it.

His surrounding sycophants know it as well – and certainly his closest executives, hand-picked, often from UEFA, to do his bidding unquestionably.

The current, and screaming, example of that is the press release FIFA issued that confuses the actual nature of the case. It is a criminal case against Infantino, not against FIFA – they are two different parties in this case, in fact, FIFA isn’t a party at all.

The press statement also bids to reversion a bit of history – and fact. And this is important. Yes, as the press release points out, we all remember the dark and football world changing days of 2015 when the FBI marched into Switzerland and started arresting people in their hotel rooms. But Infantino’s first meeting with Lauber had nothing to do with FIFA, that meeting was about UEFA matters.

FIFA’s press department rushing to defend its president only emphasises the iron grip he has taken over an organisation that is again exhibiting an integrity bypass. Hiding behind the institution and its past indiscretions is no defence against a new investigation into a current individual’s behaviour – in this case its president, but still an individual.

The point is that it is not FIFA under criminal investigation in Switzerland, Infantino is.

Criminal prosecution is an extremely serious matter and what makes this case more serious is that it was opened by a Special Prosecutor installed specifically to analyse the situation. The investigation opened is against Infantino and another Swiss federal attorney, Rinaldo Arnold, a friend of Infantino. No criminal prosecution has been opened against Lauber as he has immunity as Swiss AG – but the special prosecutor does want him as well and has applied to parliament to have his immunity from criminal proceedings lifted.

Most Swiss legal observers will tell you that it was inevitable this criminal investigation was coming  once the special prosecutor was appointed. And the word in Swiss legal circles is that this prosecutor is all-in with this investigation – this is a case where he can significantly build his reputation and career.

They will also tell you that this case will not go away and it is most likely that someone will get sanctioned, whatever rosy picture FIFA’s press releases would like to paint. This is not just about Infantino but it is about a wider mistrust within Switzerland of its own justice system – highlighted globally by Infantino’s apparent disregard for judicial process (note, Infantino is a trained lawyer and will know the rules). Swiss judicial credibility is viewed as being at stake – internally and externally.

A look at the charges being investigated leaves you in no doubt of the seriousness of the investigation.

“This concerns abuse of public office (Article 312 of the Swiss Criminal Code), breach of official secrecy (Article 320 of the Swiss Criminal Code), assisting offenders (Article 305 of the Swiss Criminal Code) and incitement to these acts. Additional criminal acts and the commencement of further proceedings remain reserved,” said the Swiss judiciary’s press release.

It has the ring of being a Swiss version of one of the US Justice Department’s FIFAgate indictments from 2015. Clearly the organisation has not travelled very far along the integrity road, if at all.

The penalties if found guilty of these kinds of charges can be custodial, though it is not likely that they would result in a jail sentence. The offender may be given a 20-30 day sentence but they would be unlikely to have to serve it. They would get a fine and a criminal record.

So where does this leave Infantino?

At present there is no indication Infantino will step down while the investigation takes place – exactly the opposite. And there is no indication FIFA Ethics will step up. And why would it, after all, it is no longer an ‘independent’ body as FIFA (read Infantino and cronies) picks its own people to serve. They are people who know how to do as they are told, usually by Infantino’s close buddy and Ethics-installed supremo Mario Gallavotti, the Italian lawyer who controls the Ethics workflow.

Ultimately if Infantino falls then they all fall.

There is nothing in FIFA’s codes that say that if a criminal investigation is begun an individual has to be suspended.

However, prior to Infantino’s tenure, the FIFA Ethics practice was that if there was enough doubt that justified the opening of a criminal case in civil law and it is football related, then it justified the opening of a FIFA investigation. The ‘standards’ threshold of violating the FIFA’s code of ethics and opening a case is much lower than in civil law.

Former FIFA president Sepp Blatter and general secretary Jerome Valcke both faced the opening of FIFA Ethics investigations pretty much immediately after Swiss civil cases were opened. And it took 13 days between the opening of a Swiss criminal case against Blatter to his FIFA suspension.

One alternative for Infantino could be to speak to any friendlies among the confederation presidents that comprise the FIFA Bureau and offer to step down from the presidency while the investigation takes place and pending the result of that investigation. That would obviate a suspension against his name and perhaps even a FIFA Ethics investigation, such is his control of the process.

However, the history of FIFA shows that once removed or suspended for 90 days, they never come back. Infantino is digging in and has the defences prepared to brazen it out. There seems to be some expectation amongst the confederations that FIFA Ethics will have to suspend him, but don’t hold your breath too long.

Meanwhile the rest of the football federation world – FIFA’s national association members – look to be sitting quietly and, perhaps, watching. Sadly it is more likely they are asleep at the wheel waiting for their next monetary feed from FIFA – coronavirus relief money could have come just in time for Infantino.

One senior Swiss lawyer told me that under current FIFA Ethics thinking it appears “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”. So what we have is the law of the jungle. Gianni may be hanging on to his status as the Lion King but he certainly isn’t Simba.

Paul Nicholson is editor of Insideworldfootball. Contact him at moc.l1596495170labto1596495170ofdlr1596495170owedi1596495170sni@n1596495170osloh1596495170cin.l1596495170uap1596495170