Will FIFA’s so-called independent ethics committee dare show its teeth in arguably its most important test case to date? That is now the all-important question after three days of unprecedented trouble-shooting by the organisation’s administration in defence of its under-fire president, Gianni Infantino.
Before attempting to answer it, let’s not under-estimate the attempts to which FIFA’s public relation machine rolled into overdrive over the past 72 hours as it tried to put the record straight over a criminal investigation launched against Infantino by a specially-appointed prosecutor with regard to those infamous undocumented dealings he held with Switzerland’s attorney general Michael Lauber who, let’s remind ourselves, has been forced to step down.
First we had the bizarre situation of FIFA conducting what was effectively an interview with itself, in question and answer format, designed to paint Infantino as the victim and which, at times, bordered on the flippant.
Insisting that the meetings with Lauber did not, as has been reported, take place in secret, FIFA said the criminal investigation was launched “basically because some anonymous complaints were filed in the canton of Bern.”
“One can only speculate on why such complaints were filed not knowing their contents, but objectively they have caused a considerable damage to FIFA and to its President Gianni Infantino, despite the fact they have no merit whatsoever.”
The words “considerable damage” say much, perhaps, about such an unusual approach by FIFA’s press office – a significant departure from past practice – in terms of getting the message out to protect Infantino’s global image and reputation. Unusual too in respect of the entire institution, in this case FIFA, putting out such strongly-worded statements that serve the interests the individual at the centre of the case and who totally controls said institution.
But even that wasn’t enough. Twenty-four hours later, the tub-thumping was racheted up several notches when Alasdair Bell, FIFA’s most astute legal brain who normally keeps himself to himself and makes few public appearances on behalf of the organisation, sprung into action in a hastily-arranged media conference call that heaped even more contempt on the Swiss judicial authorities.
Bell, FIFA’s deputy general secretary, is one of Infantino’s closest allies, the pair having worked together at UEFA, and was in no mood to let discretion and diplomacy get in the way of what he insisted, at times scornfully, was the true picture: that Infantino had done absolutely nothing wrong and there was no case to answer.
But the question of whether Infantino can stay in office or be temporarily suspended does not lie with Bell or FIFA, of course. It lies with the ethics committee. This is perhaps the crux of the matter and the reason why the organisation has so forcefully hit the accelator in trying to paint a picture of Infantino being unfairly targeted by non-sensical criminal proceedings.
Will it work? On the one hand it’s something of a risky strategy should any evidence be forthcoming in the weeks ahead that might actually incriminate Infantino. It is also unlikely to be welcomed by the Swiss judiciary which has seen its modus operandi, not for the first time, publicly called into question. And it also flies in the face of past FIFA practise which is to stay “schtum” whenever asked to comment about individuals being investigated so as not to prejudice cases. Infantino’s critics might ask why there is seemingly a different rule for the president.
If precedent is anything to go by, FIFA’s ethics committee, headed by Colombian Claudia Maria Rojas, could easily step in temporarily suspend Infantino while criminal proceedings are under way – just as it did, albeit in a different guise, with senior leaders targeted in the past by legal proceedings including the likes of Sepp Blatter in 2015.
Whether the current make-up of the committee will go the same way will is entirely another matter. Firstly because many of them were virtually hand-picked by Infantino, or at the very least met with his approval. Secondly because as everyone knows Swiss criminal investigations invariably take ages to conclude, meaning Infantino could technically be out office for more than an initial requisite 90-day suspension. There are still no charges, remember, against Blatter with Swiss authorities still looking into that case five years down the road. So, the expectation probably falls heavily down on the side of Rojas going missing in action.
Bell says parallels and comparisons with what happened to Blatter are misplaced and rejects any semblance of double standards should FIFA’s ethics apparatus deem Infantino can be left untouched.
“Contrary to the situation with Sepp Blatter where there was obviously something serious to investigate… here on the basis of what we have been told, there is nothing to investigate, serious or otherwise,” said Bell. Yes Infantino had been damaged reputationally by “the mere existence” of the criminal investigation but Bell was “100%” sure there would be no charges brought.
While the special prosecutor found “indications of criminal conduct” in relation to the meetings between Lauber and Infantino, Bell offers a different take, describing what happened as “indications of not remembering” exact details of what was discussed – not a criminal offense.
The meetings, he argued, were about governance reforms at FIFA and the ongoing cases into the old regime under Blatter, which Bell described somewhat provocatively as “an organised kleptocracy”.
He and his boss will now sit and hope, uncomfortably no doubt, that the ethics committee will be swayed by their interpretation of events and the extraordinary outpouring of words over the last couple of days.
“I can’t say much about what they will or will not do,” said Bell. “They are independent (“ahem”). All I can say is that we see no conduct that can be described remotely as criminal. That’s our analysis of the situation, the ethics committee will have to make its own analysis and come to its own decision. I’ve no doubt Gianni Infantino would respect whatever decision the ethics committee comes to.”
He would have no option but don’t hold your breath he will be forced into such a predicament.
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