Infantino’s FIFA papering over familiar cracks

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Recent protests against the 2022 Qatar World Cup have brought a timely reminder of the heinous corruption that lay at the heart of its concoction way back in 2010. Sepp Blatter was ousted from the FIFA presidency five years after the Gulf state was awarded the competition, with Gianni Infantino replacing him in February 2016. The former UEFA General Secretary described his chief aim as “regaining trust and confidence in FIFA”, to put the days of systemic vice and greed behind the organisation.

As we belatedly rally in antipathy against football’s greatest celebration taking place against a backdrop of repression and human tragedy, it is hugely important to hold FIFA to the highest of standards. It must be questioned whether Infantino truly has moved on from the sickening regime that brought football to its ethical knees. The answers inspire little optimism.

The Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast recently conducted two case studies into incidents involving FIFA’s new governance. Depressing though they are, they merit recounting and unpicking.

The first involved Miguel Maduro, the man appointed chairman of FIFA’s independent governance committee in 2016. Maduro represented the fresh face of Infantino’s new FIFA; a man joined by many others with excellent CVs and flawless reputations as lawyers and administrators away from football. As the head of such a committee, Maduro exemplified his president’s business plan of transparency and unbiased self-appraisal.

FIFA has become football’s recurring nightmare.

Yet eight months later, Maduro had been removed from his role. Addressing FIFA’s own rules of political neutrality, the former professor of had duly barred Vitaly Mutko, the Russian minister connected to the organisation of Russia’s 2018 World Cup bid. Mutko directly contradicted the organisation’s legislation and was being linked to doping charges. FIFA argued they had never interpreted their rules in such a way, and Infantino stopped responding to Maduro’s messages. The day before his re-election, the head of FIFA’s vehicle for introspection was told he would be replaced without an explanation.

The second case involved the presidential election for the Trinidad and Tobago FA in 2019. Prior to the election, Infantino had publicly declared his support for the incumbent president John Williams and the TTFA itself, an organisation in nearly eight million US dollars of debt at the time. William Wallace, a former schoolteacher, unexpectedly won the election, but FIFA refused to support the result.

Due annual payments were not sent to the TTFA, and FIFA only sent a contingent to discuss the matter after several officials had professed ignorance. It was concluded by this contingent that the TTFA lacked sufficient financial reliability due to its historic debt. The FA was normalised and Wallace ousted; FIFA had evidenced the financial failings of the candidate they had backed to denounce the man they had not.

After winning local court cases against FIFA, the TTFA were then threatened with suspension from international football. At this point, Wallace, bereft of funds due to FIFA’s own deprivation of his regime, pulled the case. The organisation in charge of football’s fair administration had toppled a democratic establishment through financial and blackmail.

What do these cases tell us? In the instance of Maduro, FIFA encapsulated an attitude that has been present ever since. The order of the day under Infantino has been promises of reform, well-worded justifications and attractive appointments. FIFA employed Maduro for his reputation, in order to subsequently boost its own. The minute it backfired, the Portuguese academic was ejected, the façade to FIFA’s ongoing sins preserved.

In the case of Trinidad and Tobago, FIFA demonstrated little progress from the exploitative, selfish empire of 2015. In publicly supporting Williams, Infantino turned his back on administrative shortcomings in order to ensure a vote for his own leadership. When Wallace won fairly, those shortcomings were used as an excuse to condemn the new regime. Questionable financial records and the unfair consolidation of power in the region were swiftly swept under the rug.

Going to the tournament and actively protesting at games watched by millions will threaten the image FIFA have tried so desperately to protect.

If we are to concede anything to FIFA it is the extent of the 2015 corruption case. Thirty leading officials were arrested. The former Brazil Football Federation chief Ricardo Teixeira was involved with bribes and scheming worth more than £132 million. To expect a complete reversal in six years is unreasonable, but the concern is the familiarity of the mistakes being made. FIFA has become football’s recurring nightmare.

With Infantino at the helm, there seem few reasons to be cheerful. Choosing not to take action against players protesting against the illegality of homosexuality hardly suggests a “changed FIFA” amidst other issues such as the oppression of women and the deaths of 6,500 migrant workers in Qatar. The fundamental truth is that the current president does not represent enough of a culture shock to an organisation in desperate need of one.

After working at UEFA during the years of the disgraced Michel Platini, Infantino has been accused of criminal conduct for the meetings he had with the Swiss attorney general Michael Lauber during the latter’s corruption investigation into Blatter’s command. Lauber resigned last summer after being accused of lying about the 2017 encounter.

The president defended himself by saying it had always been his aim “to assist the authorities with investigating past wrongdoings at FIFA”. His enjoyment of special treatment from Russia and Qatar in the form of private jets and lavish accommodation over the past five years somewhat devalues his claims.

Rather than burying our heads in the defeatist sand, football fans must paint an optimistic picture of what the governance of the game should look like. The sport deserves to be run by honest people who prioritise football over their own financial greed. It should not be subject to individuals consolidating their power through empty promises, who hire these honest types only to better their image, removing them when material change threatens to right their deeply rooted wrongs.

Qatar represents an opportunity for football to hold its federation accountable. FIFA has fallen back on recent, rushed improvements regarding civil liberties in the state, but they must be handed more responsibility for the lack of emphatic change since 2015. Boycotting the World Cup would suit FIFA’s new-found obsession with optics, with how they present themselves and fabricate positivity. Going to the tournament and actively protesting at games watched by millions will threaten the image FIFA have tried so desperately to protect. Only then might previously hollow guarantees be fulfilled. 

Image: Paul Kagame via Creative Commons

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