By Andrew Warshaw
October 22 – Three months after criminal proceedings were opened against Gianni Infantino, the FIFA president has broken his silence by declaring he still doesn’t know what he is accused of and defending his conduct throughout his dealings with Switzerland’s disgraced former attorney general Michael Lauber.
Until now, Infantino has given the occasional soundbite quote in various press conferences, rubbishing the case against him as “absurd” even though Swiss special prosecutor Stefan Keller said he found “elements that make up reprehensible behaviour” linked to those much-publicised undocumented meetings Infantino had with Lauber in 2016 and 2017, the subject matter of which still remain largely unknown.
Lauber was recently forced to resign but in a wide-ranging interview with the Swiss mass-circulation tabloid newspaper Blick, Infantino goes on the offensive in denouncing the Swiss judicial authorities as well as the previous FIFA regime run by Sepp Blatter.
“I still do not know what I am being accused of. They threw me to the world public without saying what I was supposed to have done wrong,” Infantino told his interviewer.
Asked why his conversations with Lauber were not recorded, Infantino replied: “To be honest, I didn’t ask myself these questions, why should I?
“I went to the top public prosecutor in Switzerland. For me, that was a guarantee that everything would run correctly. It’s about the same as if your wallet was stolen and you went to the police station.
“You don’t expect the police to beat you up. That’s what it feels like to me. In the conversations I had the feeling that I was doing everything right.”
Infantino, as he has done many times not entirely convincingly, argued it was totally legitimate for him to meet Lauber to offer his help with any investigation into FIFA’s tainted past.
“(When) I became FIFA President, (I was) head of a company poisoned by corruption,” he said. “It was my duty to seek contact with the federal prosecutor. Firstly, to clean up, implement reforms and make cash flows transparent so that things from before did not repeat themselves.”
“I wanted to tell Michael Lauber: ‘Mr. Federal Prosecutor, with the new FIFA not only the doors are open, but also the windows.’ I wanted to tell him that as the newly elected President, I, too, would fully cooperate with the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, because FIFA is the damaged party in all proceedings.”
One suggested reason Infantino met Lauber is that he wanted to wash his hands of the infamous ‘Football Leaks’ allegation that he had signed a contract, when he was at UEFA, with two of the parties subsequently indicted in the FIFAGate scandal.
“This is complete nonsense. I don’t know who wanted to blacken my name with this allegation,” he declared. “This particular UEFA contract – one of many hundreds that I had co-signed over the years – was thoroughly examined by the Federal Prosecutor’s Office and considered to be absolutely problem-free for me.
“I have never been accused and there have never been any investigations or even proceedings against me.”
Part of the reporting into the Infantino-Lauber case has focussed on the involvement of one of Infantino’s closest friends, Valais senior public prosecutor Rinaldo Arnold.
Why, Infantino was asked by Blick, did he have to go through Arnold to facilitate the Lauber meetings?
“Why should that be a mistake?” he hit back. “It was obvious to me that I could trust a friend who is also a senior public prosecutor. Because he represents above-average ethical principles, I asked him for advice to meet the federal prosecutor. This is certainly not illegal.”
However strongly Infantino defends himself, one nagging question that has not been resolved is why nobody could remember details of his third meeting with Lauber. Again, he attempted to argue, this was totally understandable.
“The meetings with the federal prosecutor took place four years ago. If you ask me today what I ate for lunch a month ago and with whom, I cannot tell you spontaneously.”
“Can you remember in detail an encounter that took place four years ago? I have x meetings with x people every week, month and year. I’m actually not sure whether I’ve met Mr. Lauber two or three times. That’s why I never ruled out that we might meet three times. But what I do know is that I would have met him 300 times if he had wanted it.
“It is incomprehensible that something illegal is being constructed from this. It is my right and my duty as FIFA President to meet the Federal Prosecutor because it was in FIFA’s interest. I reject the allegations of individual media 100%.”
Infantino admitted, however, that it wasn’t easy to shrug off FIFA’s corruption-plagued past.
“I have to be honest that it affects me a lot, including my family, every FIFA employee, every president of a FIFA association. The image damage is enormous. When I took over in 2016, FIFA was in ruins.”
One of Infantino’s first initiatives when he took over from Blatter was to overhaul the ethics committee, purging it of leading judge Hans-Joachim Eckert and chief investigator Cornel Borbély as well as other officials.
Was that because he thought they could pose a dangerous threat to his presidency, as many observers believe?
“I did not choose the successors of the two whose terms of office had expired according to the statutes,” Infantino reasoned. “Congress did that, I didn’t even have a vote.”
He admitted, however, that the ethics apparatus needed a more global representation.
“There are five independent commissions at FIFA. Before my time, the president was Swiss. The President of the Disciplinary Committee? Swiss. The chairman of the investigative ethics committee? Swiss. The chief overseer? Swiss. The ethics committee judge? A German who lives 200 kilometers from here. The only one who was not Swiss was the president of the appointment committee. That was the head of the Bermuda Football Association.
“I don’t think – and I say that as a Swiss – that this is representative of a global organisation.”
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