KARACHI: World football’s governing body FIFA is of the view that there was no reason for Swiss authorities to launch criminal proceedings against its president Gianni Infantino.
At a news conference via video on Monday, FIFA’s deputy secretary general Alasdair Bell termed the opening of the probe “grotesque and unfair” while acknowledging that there were people who want to take down Infantino.
A Swiss special prosecutor started proceedings last week as part of an investigation into suspected collusion between Infantino and Switzerland’s attorney general Michael Lauber, the country’s top prosecutor.
Lauber, who offered his resignation on July 24, was in charge of Switzerland’s sprawling investigation into corruption at FIFA that began in 2015. But he was forced to recuse himself from the investigation in June 2019, following media revelations that he had held several undeclared meetings with Infantino during the probe.
Swiss authorities said special prosecutor Stefan Keller “reached the conclusion that... there are indications of criminal conduct” in relation to meetings between Infantino, Lauber and another official, Rinaldo Arnold, in 2016 and 2017. Lauber and Infantino have already denied wrongdoing.
“There is no factual basis whatsoever for this criminal investigation,” said Bell. “There is no description of criminal conduct of any kind that has been communicated to FIFA.
“There is something a little grotesque and unfair in all this because we are 100% confident there will never be a criminal charge against the FIFA president. But we have a situation where, objectively, there is damage to both FIFA and the FIFA president simply because of the existence of this criminal investigation.”
Since the opening of criminal proceedings against Infantino, there have been calls for the FIFA ethics committee to suspend the FIFA president, most notably from Sepp Blatter – the man who was toppled in disgrace as the world’s football chief in 2015.
“In a position of authority, you have friends and rivals,” said Bell, who admitted Infantino would respect any decision taken by FIFA’s ethics committee. “We’re in the realm of speculation here. Some people would be interested in that [the post of FIFA president]. There is a criminal investigation that affects Gianni and FIFA as well. There have been anonymous complaints made against [Infantino]. People who made the complaints, would like to see him fall and have orchestrated this.”
Infantino was elected as FIFA president in the fallout from the investigations that erupted around FIFA in 2015; the Swiss-Italian coming into power in 2016 after winning an election against Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Sheikh Salman. The Bahraini is senior vice president of FIFA and would likely become interim leader if Infantino were to be suspended.
Asked by Dawn if he was pointing towards Asia’s football chief as the man who’d like to see Infantino fall, Bell said: “I’m certainly not pointing towards the AFC president. There are anonymous complaints that have been made. There are those who want the FIFA president to fall. We have to look at this case on its merits and there have been none that have been communicated to us.”
Bell was coy when asked by Dawn if FIFA had considered moving its base from Zurich after the criminal investigation against Infantino was opened. According to a report by the New York Times last year, FIFA had been exploring options for moving out of Switzerland.
“It’s not encouraging … it’s not a great situation,” said Bell. “The FIFA president has met the Swiss attorney general and is now being investigated. However, we remain optimistic that Swiss justice will go its course. And we’re also optimistic that previous cases, in which there was serious wrongdoing, will be investigated.”
In total, more than 20 FIFA proceedings have been opened in Switzerland over the past five years into allegations of corruption in FIFA and Bell concluded by saying Infantino’s meetings with Lauber were to show that the global football body had moved on from the tainted era of Blatter.
“You go there in order to demonstrate your willingness to cooperate, the organisation has turned a new chapter,” Bell said. “You don’t really expect when you go to meet the most senior prosecutor in the country, to have a discussion about governance reform at FIFA, to have a discussion about the ongoing cases involving FIFA ... after that to end up yourself being the subject of a criminal investigation.”
Published in Dawn, August 4th, 2020