By Andrew Warshaw
August 11 – A strongly worded press release in Q and A format; a hastily arranged virtual press conference denouncing the Swiss judicial authorities; an attack on the reform process under the previous regime; letters fired off to every national association and every member of the all-powerful FIFA Council; and, if rumours are to be believed, the hiring of at least three (no doubt expensive) external specialist lawyers to help fight the case.
All on the same subject. All in the space of one week. Phew…
To suggest FIFA has gone to unprecedented lengths to defend its president Gianni Infantino following the launch of a criminal investigation by Swiss special prosecutor Stefan Keller into his already infamous meetings with the (now former) Swiss Attorney Michael Lauber is somewhat of an understatement.
Rarely, if ever, in its troubled history has the organisation racheted up its public relations machine quite so robustly in order to rally behind the man at the top. For overdrive, read overkill.
It may well be, as Infantino and his newly installed mouthpiece Alasdair Bell (officially FIFA deputy secretary general but right now taking on the role of trouble-shooter number one) keep telling us that the president has done nothing wrong and has no case to answer.
But the quite extraordinary bending-over-backwards outpouring of presidential protection over the last few days smacks of an increasingly panicky administration pulling out every stop to keep Infantino in his job – clearly in the knowledge that should FIFA’s ethics committee follow the line of the Swiss judiciary, then Infantino could soon find himself outside looking in – and for quite some considerable time.
As this website has suggested before, where we go from here depends largely, now that the Swiss judiciary has threatened to clamp its claws around the FIFA president, on whether afore-mentioned ethics committee will ever so politely (make that cringingly) dare inform Infantino it has no option but to suspend him, whether or not he is proven innocent. In all likelihood, such a suspension won’t happen given that the make-up of the committee, however much Bell might like to trumpet its independence, was largely approved by Infantino himself. It would take a brave ethics body to bite the hand that feeds it.
In one sense, Bell’s withering attack on the Swiss judiciary system is understandable if potentially seriously counter-productive. A Swiss lawyer taking party in last week’s virtual media conference call, Marc Henzelin, explained that the threshold for opening a criminal investigation in the country was “very low” and that the authorities are obliged to open one unless it is immediately apparent that no offence has been committed.
Also on the call was Dave Zollinger, a former prosecutor who quoted from the order FIFA had received confirming the opening of criminal proceedings. Zollinger said that the order stated the explanations of the meetings given by Lauber and Infantino were “not convincing” and “therefore it cannot be excluded that criminal intent was actually there”.
“There is no smoking gun,” he stressed. “It is just that criminal intent cannot be excluded.”
A theme Bell was quick to take up as he heaped scorn and sarcasm on such a legal nuance. “It can’t be excluded that something criminal might have happened at a meeting between the FIFA president and the attorney general,” he repeated.
“That’s what we’re looking at. Very good,” he told reporters as he questioned whether an unwarranted conspiracy against his boss may lay at the heart of the matter.
Yet whatever the motives that prompted the unidentified parties to complain about Infantino’s conduct (one or two well-known names are being thrown into the rumour mill) and whatever the arguments for and against complainants being allowed to hide behind anonymity, the rules surely have to be the same for everyone when it comes to Swiss law. Infantino will have known this and so will his army of experts.
And there are other important points to raise. As my colleague Paul Nicholson wrote yesterday, FIFA is not under criminal investigation. Only the president is. Legal experts (not the ones FIFA has appointed obviously) argue that therefore the administration should not be going public on the matter. If anyone should, it’s the ethics committee.
Next. Neither FIFA general secretary Fatma Samoura nor Bell, joint signatories of the letter to the FIFA Council, were even in office when the first of the Infantino-Lauber meetings took place. So how can they state whatever they like in this regard, presumably relying solely on what Infantino has told them?
It’s potentially dangerous territory. Bell can protect Infantino all he likes in saying there were no secret meetings. He says is he 100% sure that Infantino will be cleared. But does he know exactly what Keller has got in his hands ?
What if Keller has incriminatory evidence that Infantino was trying, as he considered whether to run for FIFA president, to find out whether there were any procedures ongoing against others (and we know who they are) who were hoping to run too? Or even procedures against himself?
What if Keller has information about Infantino possibly inquiring whether there was likely to be any fallout over him signing off, when he was at UEFA, on that third-party Champions League TV rights deal for an entity owned by Argentine commercial rights dealers Hugo and Mariano Jinkis, both of whom were indicted in the US corruption investigation into FIFA officals?
There are lots of ifs, buts and conjecture but FIFA doesn’t have time to buy. Every day that goes by represents one too many for Infantino and his power base in terms of global reaction to the unresolved Swiss investigation. Hence the remarkable tactics of the last few days to try and bring about a swift conclusion in favour of the man who swept into power promising to strip away corruption once and for all.
There may well indeed be no smoking gun. But there’s another expression which says the opposite – no smoke without fire.
Andrew Warshaw is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org