By Andrew Warshaw
August 3 – FIFA came out with all guns blazing today as it savaged the decision by the Swiss authorities to launch a criminal investigation into the conduct of Gianni Infantino, insisting there was no case to answer and hinting it might be based on a deliberate attempt to bring Infantino down.
In a hastily arranged virtual media conference call, FIFA sent out deputy general secretary Alastair Bell (pictured), the organisation’s most astute legal brain who worked with Infantino when both were at UEFA, to lacerate the process by which his boss’s conduct was judged.
Last week criminal proceedings were launched against Infantino by a Swiss special prosecutor over undocumented dealings with the country’s former attorney general Michael Lauber who is resigning his post at the end of August.
Appointed to review anonymous complaints against both men, special prosecutor Stefan Keller found there had been “indications of criminal conduct” related to their meetings according to the watchdog body overseeing the Attorney General’s Office.
But Bell, who joined FIFA from UEFA two years ago, was unequivocal in countering Keller’s analysis, saying it had no legal, factual or ethical basis.
Declaring that FIFA had “absolutely nothing to hide and want the truth to come out quickly,” Bell stated with a touch of sarcasm: “No criminal conduct of any kind has been communicated to FIFA unless meeting the attorney general has somehow become a crime in Switzerland which I rather doubt.”
“We have no idea what it is the FIFA president has done wrong or what could remotely be described as criminal conduct.”
The straight-talking Bell left no stone unturned as he picked apart the reasons for the decision to investigate Infantino’s intentions during those infamous meetings with Lauber over a period of a couple of years.
Echoing Infantino’s own assertion that he was simply doing his job by meeting Lauber to discuss ongoing FIFA-related corruption cases, Bell, who pulled in a series of other legal experts to help him during the Zoom call, said simply failing to recall details of at least one of those meetings did not merit any kind of probe.
“We have to acknowledge that objectively there is damage to FIFA and to the FIFA president reputationally… but frankly there is something a little grotesque and unfair about all this,” said Bell.
“We are 100% confident that there will never be a criminal charge, far less a criminal conviction, against the FIFA president. A lot of this is about perception. But there is nothing, zero.”
Asked whether he felt there was a deliberate campaign to remove Infantino orchestrated by his enemies, of which there are a fair few, Bell replied: “Yes there might be. Some people may be interested in that. But if someone opens a criminal investigation, with the media circus that goes with it, there needs to be a good reason and we don’t have one. We don’t see any conduct which could remotely be described as criminal.”
One issue Bell did not address is why FIFA, who always make a point of issuing strictly “no comment” responses when individuals are being investigated so as not to prejudice cases, suddenly performed a u-turn when it came to the man at the top. It was presumably designed to take the heat off Infantino who arrived at FIFA four years ago pledging to weed out corruption once and for all.
With that in mind, Bell called on the media to switch its focus from Infantino’s perceived misconduct to those who could be trying to force him out.
“All we have are anonymous complaints,” he said. “ Maybe the people who made those complaints would like to see Gianni Infantino fall. It would be a good function of the media to bring this out.”
Bell, at times smirking with incredulity at the situation Infantino finds himself in, was pressed about why his boss had conveniently forgotten at least one meeting with Lauber and what was discussed there, a situation described by former Basel police commander and criminal law expert Markus Mohler as “collective amnesia.”
Bell said this was a totally unfair interpretation. “Before the meeting, the president was in China, he comes back to Zurich, meets Lauber, and the following day he goes to Russia. He gets asked about the meeting two years later and says he doesn’t remember the details. He was telling the truth. Is not remembering the details of a meeting a crime? What are we talking about here?”
“You go to see the most senior law officer in the country to offer co-operation for the purposes of criminal investigation and then you end up being the subject of a criminal investigation yourself a few years later. What sort of message does this send out?”
As he examined the apparent thinking of the special prosecutor, Bell added, somewhat tongue in cheek: “Let’s just get this into context. It can’t be excluded that something criminal might have happened at a meeting between the FIFA president and the attorney general. That’s what we’re looking at. Very good.”
“I can’t tell you what happened because I wasn’t there. But it’s almost preposterous to suggest that if someone doesn’t remember the details of a meeting, something criminal should have been discussed.”
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