Rob Harris

Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Infantino faces ethics complaint over FIFA leadership

1 Comment

LONDON (AP) Gianni Infantino’s leadership of FIFA faced renewed criticism Wednesday when two former officials turned on the president with complaints about his conduct.

New York University law professor Joseph Weiler disclosed he has submitted an ethics complaint to FIFA about alleged undue interference by Infantino on the work of the governance panel he served until May.

[ MORE: JPW talks with Pulisic post-UCL loss ]

Weiler quit his FIFA role after the abrupt removal of committee chairman Miguel Maduro, who testified Wednesday to British legislators about the strong pressure applied by Infantino in an apparent attempt to influence decisions.

Maduro said he was told that banning Russian Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko from soccer’s ruling council would be a “disaster” for the 2018 World Cup and Infantino’s presidency could be jeopardized.

But Maduro still went through with the biggest call of his tenure – blocking Mutko, who is also head of the 2018 World Cup organizing committee, from seeking re-election to the FIFA Council on grounds of political interference.

“With the exception of that case in general, the president did not try to influence our decisions,” Maduro told the sports committee at the House of Commons. “He would transit to me sometimes those decisions were not well accepted but in that case there was an attempt to influence that decision.”

It came in March just as Russia was preparing to host a World Cup warm-up tournament, where Infantino met with Mutko and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“(Infantino) expressed concerns about the impact of the decision (to ban Mutko) on the World Cup,” Maduro said. “He was very clear about that.”

FIFA secretary general Fatma Samoura went further to Maduro.

“The secretary general made it clear to me that it was extremely problematic,” Maduro said. “More than that, she said we needed to find a solution to declare Mr. Mutko eligible because otherwise the presidency itself would be in question, the World Cup would be a disaster, that was her view, and the continued presidency of Mr. Infantino would also be in question.”

Mutko’s continued position of power within FIFA was also under scrutiny after he was directly implicated in the state-sponsored doping scandal in Russia.

Maduro said Infantino believes there is “no evidence” Mutko is involved in the Russian doping scandal.

FIFA took six hours to challenge Maduro’s allegations, without saying specifically what was inaccurate.

“For Miguel Maduro to be in regular contact with the FIFA administration, sometimes under his own initiative and in order to seek advice, was normal in the course of his work,” FIFA said in a statement. “Exchange between the administration and FIFA’s committees, which in the end all defend FIFA’s interests, are logical and even desirable, so for these exchanges to be portrayed as undue influence is factually incorrect.”

Weiler confirmed to The Associated Press by email that he had submitted the ethics complaint to FIFA about Infantino, who pledged to clean up the governing body after succeeding the disgraced Sepp Blatter in February 2015.

FIFA said the ethics committee “will not comment on ongoing proceedings nor comment on whether or not investigations are underway into alleged ethics cases.” That is despite FIFA announcing in June, in response to a spate of reports about Infantino, that “there are no open preliminary or investigation proceedings involving the FIFA president.”

The hearing at the British parliament began with committee chairman Damian Collins disclosing correspondence from FIFA blocking ousted investigator Cornel Borbely from taking questions from legislators. Samoura wrote to Collins warning that Borbely is prevented from appearing at the digital, culture, media and sport committee because he is still bound by the FIFA ethics code and Swiss civil and criminal law.

More AP coverage of FIFA at http://www.apnews.com/tag/FIFA

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

Fresh arrest shows FIFA’s corruption turmoil far from over

AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
3 Comments

More than a year since FIFA declared the end of its corruption turmoil, the optimism has proved misguided. The latest arrest, of the man who is one heartbeat from the presidency of world soccer, demonstrated that on Tuesday.

Fresh wrongdoing, still reaching into the heart of power in FIFA, undercuts Gianni Infantino’s pledge to set the governing body on a new path to probity after the misdemeanors of the Sepp Blatter era.

[ MORE: Arnautovic to West Ham ]

Here is a look at fresh offshoots from the corruption scandal that burst into the open when several soccer officials were arrested at a Zurich hotel:

ANGEL MARIA VILLAR

As FIFA’s senior vice president with 19 years’ experience on world soccer’s decision-making body, Angel Maria Villar is one rung down the ladder from Infantino.

Now Villar is fighting accusations of improper management, misappropriation of funds, corruption, and falsifying documents as part of a probe into the finances of the Spanish federation he heads.

The 67-year-old Villar was arrested in Madrid on Tuesday along with his son, whose business ventures he is accused of helping to profit from matches arranged for 2010 World Cup winner Spain.

It is not the first time the former Spain international has been embroiled in wrongdoing in his post-playing career in football politics.

Misconduct in a dual role as leader of the 2018 Spain-Portugal bid and a FIFA voter led to him being reprimanded. He was fined for a lack of cooperation with the investigation into 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding, criticized for a “tone and manner” that was “deeply disturbing.”

SHEIKH AHMAD

Until April, Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah of Kuwait was one of the most powerful figures in sport despite lacking the commensurate public profile.

The long-time Olympic powerbroker and election “kingmaker” was forced out of his position of power in soccer in disgrace after being directly implicated in a bribery plot uncovered by American investigators. Despite denying wrongdoing, the sheikh quit the election to remain on the FIFA Council ahead of the May election.

RICHARD LAI

The claims against Sheikh Ahmad emerged in the indictment of FIFA audit committee member Richard Lai in a New York court, the latest branch of the sprawling U.S. federal investigation of bribery and corruption in international soccer that was revealed in 2015.

Lai, an American citizen from Guam, pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy charges related to taking around $1 million in bribes, including at least $850,000 from Kuwaiti officials. The scheme was to buy influence and help recruit other Asian soccer officials prepared to take bribes.

VITALY MUTKO

As head of the 2018 World Cup, Vitaly Mutko is central to the success of FIFA’s showpiece event and enjoys privileged access to Infantino and Russian President Vladimir Putin. That is despite mounting evidence uncovered by World Anti-Doping Agency investigators of how he subverted sport through his role in the scheme to cover up doping.

As Russian deputy prime minister, Mutko was banned from re-election to the FIFA Council this year on grounds of political interference. But FIFA’s inertia on Mutko’s role in the Russian doping scandal continues to jar with Infantino’s assertion that he won’t tolerate any transgressions by people in positions of power in soccer.

More AP soccer coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Soccer

Rob Harris can be followed at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

Study of footballers’ brains highlights dementia concerns

Photo by Mario Carlini / Iguana Press/Getty Images
Leave a comment

LONDON (AP) The degenerative damage potentially caused by repeated blows to the head in soccer has been highlighted by a rare study of brains of a small number of retired players who developed dementia.

Fourteen former players were part of the research that began around 40 years ago and six brains, which underwent post-mortem examinations, had signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

Four brains were found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) pathology, a possible consequence of repeated impacts to the brain, including heading the ball and concussion injuries from head-to-head collisions. A previous study of 268 brains from the general population in Britain found a far lower CTE detection rate of 12 percent.

[ MORE: Clattenburg leaves England ]

The small sample size of former footballers prevented researchers from University College London and Britain’s National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery from drawing any conclusions about the dangers posed by playing soccer as they released their research.

But researchers hope the findings provide the impetus for more substantial studies in conjunction with soccer authorities. The researchers require current or retired players to be willing to take part of investigations that could take decades to produce conclusions.

“Our findings show there is a potential link between repetitive head impacts from playing football and the later development of CTE,” lead author Dr. Helen Ling of the UCL Institute of Neurology told The Associated Press.

“This will support the need for larger scale studies of a larger number of footballers who need to be followed long term, looking at various aspects in terms of their mental functions, imaging of the brain and also markers that might identify neurological damage.”

England’s Football Association said it is committed to “independent, robust and thorough” research, which it is jointly funding with the players’ union. The Alzheimer’s Society maintained that the latest “results do not provide proof that heading a football, or sustaining a head injury by any other means during the sport, is linked to developing dementia.”

“Exercise is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of dementia and it’s important to ensure that people playing any kind of sport are able to do so safely,” Dr. James Pickett, research head at the Alzheimer’s Society, said.

Concerns have grown in Britain about the impact of head injuries after campaigning by the family of former England striker Jeff Astle, whose death at age 59 in 2002 was attributed to repeatedly heading heavy, leather balls.

Astle’s daughter, Dawn, is urging “current footballers or families of footballers to pledge the brain” for medical research.

[ MORE: PL Power Rankings ]

“If we hadn’t donated dad’s brain, we wouldn’t know what we know now – we wouldn’t know what had killed him,” Dawn Astle said. “It’s too late for dad. The research is so important for current players and for future players. That’s why we need it.

“I think that’s what is so very frustrating – the fact that it’s nearly 15 years since my dad died. And the fact that nothing from any footballing authorities has been done. It is really indefensible and disgraceful.”

At least four members of England’s 1966 World Cup-winning squad have developed dementia or memory loss.

In the United States, there has been a $1 billion settlement between the NFL and thousands of its former American football players who have been diagnosed with brain injuries linked to repeated concussions. In 2015, the U.S. Soccer Federation recommended a ban on headers for players 10 and under in a bid to address concerns about the impact of head injuries.

[ MORE: NYCFC adds new DP ]

The British soccer research was instigated by consultant psychiatrist Dr. Don Williams, who started to monitor former players who were diagnosed with dementia from 1980. From Swansea in south Wales, Williams monitored the retired players and collected data on their playing and concussion history.

“In 1980 the son of a man with advanced dementia asked me if his father’s condition had been caused by heading the ball for many years as a powerful center half,” Williams said. “As the brain is a very fragile organ, well protected within the skull, this was a constructive suggestion.

“As a result I looked out for men with dementia and a significant history of playing soccer, followed them up and where possible arranged for post-mortem studies to be carried out.”

Rob Harris is at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

Manchester United back atop money table

Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Manchester United can spend because Manchester United prints money.

Maybe that’s an oversimplification, but the Red Devils earned more than $632 million this year. That’s better than second-place Barcelona and third-place Real Madrid by $60-plus million.

It’s United’s first year atop the list since 2005. Here’s the full report.

[ FA CUP: Liverpool moves on ]

The UEFA Champions League heavy list sees eight Premier League sides: United (1), Man City (5), Arsenal (7), Chelsea (8), Liverpool (9), Tottenham Hotspur (12), West Ham United (18), Leicester City (20).

Serie A is second with four clubs, while La Liga and Bundesliga have three clubs on the list. Ligue 1 (Paris Saint-Germain) and the Russian Premier League (Zenit Saint Petersburg) complete the group of 20.

The Associated Press’ stalwart reporter Rob Harris has this handy chart:

Infantino fighting resistance to overhaul FIFA

Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images
1 Comment

ZURICH (AP) Sepp Blatter has been expelled from FIFA but not eradicated from its headquarters.

A swift left turn after entering FIFA’s slate-walled lobby in Zurich still takes visitors to the place where football’s disgraced self-styled “godfather” is forever president. A plaque of infamy commemorates the FIFA leadership on the day their gleaming global base opened in 2007. Now it provides a snapshot of a sullied era in soccer governance, with six of seven vice presidents serving under Blatter on that May day since implicated in wrongdoing or banned outright from the sport.

[ MORE: Blues, Reds prove PL mettle ]

FIFA is still trying to shake off the toxic legacy of Blatter, whose 17-year presidency was abruptly halted last October as the extent of his financial misdemeanors started to unravel. The first seven months of Gianni Infantino’s presidency have seen the charge sheet against his predecessor grow even as the new leader embarks on a mission to clean up the organization and rebuild trust.

And yet Infantino shuffles in his seat when Blatter’s name is raised during an Associated Press interview, seemingly reticent to join the chorus of those condemning the man revered for so long by soccer leaders globally.

“That’s not my job to do that,” Infantino responded when asked to assess how damaging Blatter was to FIFA. “There is an ethics committee looking at this.”

Asked whether the 80-year-old Blatter should face jail, Infantino responded: “I don’t want to comment on the past. The facts speak for themselves.”

Already serving a six-year ban for authorizing an improper payment of 2 million Swiss francs to Michel Platini (one of those now discredited former vice presidents), Blatter is under further investigation for bribery and corruption by the FIFA ethics mechanisms he created. He is also a suspect in a Swiss criminal case but denies wrongdoing.

[ MORE: Mesmerizing Barca goal ]

FIFA’s own lawyers said in June that Blatter and two colleagues gained improperly through annual salary increases, World Cup bonuses and other incentives exceeding 79 million Swiss francs over five years.

Infantino, a Swiss-Italian law graduate, is more guarded than FIFA’s own lawyers, withholding a verdict on Blatter until a forensic and financial audit is complete.

“There will be conclusions of this audit on what went wrong and why things went wrong and on what we have to do to improve things here in the future,” Infantino said during an exclusive 30-minute interview – held in a subterranean lounge at FIFA’s Swiss fortress-like HQ where his finger print was required for entry.

“What concerns the past, there are people are dealing with. I have to make sure in the future wrongdoing doesn’t happen anymore in FIFA and around FIFA.”

That isn’t easy when Infantino in February inherited a workforce inevitably packed with Blatter loyalists, staff resistant to change or those still disgruntled at being cut out of the decision-making process. Some executives were dismissed as Infantino cleared out the old guard.

[ MORE: Spurs boss says Carter-Vickers deserves to start ]

“When you have to embrace such significant reforms, it’s obviously normal you get some blowback and turbulence,” Infantino said. “The worst for a human being is to change his habits. It’s obvious some people were not happy but we have to move on.”

Infantino feels ready to declare: “There is a change now in the culture.”

“The vast majority is embracing the change,” he added, “for a more flat organization where discussion and debate is not prohibited but is open.”

And yet for months, while striving to instill a new adherence to ethical business practices, Infantino was himself under investigation by FIFA’s ethics prosecutors.

Infantino has dismissed as “orchestrated hysteria” claims of excessive spending billed to FIFA for rental cars, a private driver, a tuxedo, flowers and a mattress for his FIFA-owned apartment in Zurich, and a step machine for his office. A FIFA ethics court, which looked into Infantino’s use of private flights to visit Pope Francis at the Vatican, Vladimir Putin in Moscow and the Emir of Qatar, found that no rules had been broken.

The damaging leaks, which emerged in early June after a shaky first congress in Mexico for Infantino, seemed intended to paint him as unscrupulous as the old regime.

“The perception was also fed by those who did not want change to happen – you can’t make omelets without breaking eggs,” he said. “You learn always from everything you do. I’m certainly not someone who has never made mistakes. I am certainly not immune from making mistakes. What is important is to always do things with conviction.”

[ MORE: Guardiola balancing City’s injury woes despite hot streak ]

The 46-year-old Infantino is FIFA’s accidental president. His campaign was only launched on the back of Platini being suspended with Blatter last year, emerging from the shadow of his former boss at European soccer’s governing body to lead the global game.

As UEFA’s top administrator, Infantino’s moments in the limelight came when hosting Champions League draws while his day-to-day work was in the background, implementing Platini’s policies. The two men ended up on the same plane from Switzerland to the UEFA Congress in Athens this week, when onlookers were quick to spread word of their lack of interaction.

“Before the plane we shook hands,” said Infantino, who occupies the job that Platini, the former France captain and coach, craved for so long.

Assuming the leadership of the world’s most popular sport and World Cup organizer hasn’t been comfortable for Infantino.

“One other thing that did surprise me, beside the tough opposition, was the public scrutiny that you are faced with,” Infantino said. “You learn to deal with this, to be maybe a bit more sensitive.”

Apart from swelling the World Cup by eight teams to make it a 40-country competition and taking about changes to the Olympic football competition, Infantino is still short of detail about his plans for FIFA – beyond overseeing its clean-up.

[ LISTEN: Men in Blazers with HAO ]

And there is wariness not only about condemning Blatter but also Russia, host of the 2018 World Cup, over a World Anti-Doping Agency investigation which exposed a state-sponsored doping scheme that included football,

“It’s not my job to judge this report,” Infantino said.

“Let’s work in a positive sense in this direction rather than trying to undermine” the World Cup, he added, while backing Russia’s sports minister, Vitality Mutko, implicated in the doping program. Mutko denies any wrongdoing.

When it comes to threats by Europe’s elite clubs to form a breakaway Super League or world competition, Infantino sidestepped the chance to assert FIFA’s authority and warn them to remain in the existing structures.

Instead, Infantino has prioritized enhancing FIFA’s relations with clubs, hosting Barcelona’s president in Zurich on Thursday to “re-establish relations after two years” following the Spanish champions’ transfer ban in 2015.

Asked if the tax fraud conviction for Barcelona’s star player, Lionel Messi, should prevent him being crowned world player of the year again by FIFA, Infantino said: “It has nothing to do with his performances on the pitch.” Messi has said he is appealing the Spanish court’s deicsion.

Infantino’s public replies and actions ooze caution in marked contrast to the shoot-from-the-hip Blatter, whose staff would be on tenterhooks, fearing a gaffe or controversial statement, when he faced the media.

[ MORE: Palace’s Souare out up to six months following car crash ]

“I don’t work with threats,” Infantino says of his leadership style. “I work much more on dialogue and finding common solutions with everyone.”

Infantino cannot afford to offend the global game. He is only completing Blatter’s ill-fated fifth, four-year term that started in May 2015 and has to seek re-election in less than three years.

“The time is not enough to do all the things I would like to do,” Infantino said.

Rob Harris at http://www.twitter.com/RobHarris and http://www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports