Sepp Blatter

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Infantino channels Blatter rather than marking clean break

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MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) Regardless of his intentions, Gianni Infantino’s rhetoric and actions at his second congress leading world soccer did little to signal a clean break from the discredited Sepp Blatter era.

And that’s after having more than a year to re-shape the tainted FIFA presidency in his image and the chance to banish Blatter’s acolytes.

Critics contest that, the appearance at least, is of a governing body slipping back into the murky traits of the Blatter regime, with opaque backroom dealings, decisions taken within closed circles, and debate appearing to be suppressed.

The FIFA ethics prosecutor ousted by Infantino this week was explicit when asked how the past and present presidents differ: Only their Swiss birthplaces.

“One comes from Brig,” investigator Cornel Borbely said. “The other from Visp.”

There is a clear difference. Infantino is not accused of financial wrongdoing like Blatter, who ruled the game for 17 years before being banished from power in disgrace after it became clear how he enriched himself through leading FIFA.

Their thirst for power seems comparable at times, though, in the clandestine way decisions are made.

The manner in which Infantino has accumulated power is at odds with the recommendations of the reforms he helped to craft after the 2015 scandal. The presidency, crafted into an executive position by Blatter, was intended to become more ambassadorial in the new era with the secretary general gaining the authority of a CEO. At the FIFA Congress in Bahrain, Fatma Samoura marked her first year as secretary general by being relegated to a bit-part role.

The executive committee, so discredited under Blatter as members were led away in handcuffs and toppled on FIFA ethics violations, morphed into the council last year with a membership swelling to almost 40.

And far from the body becoming more transparent, members were warned about speaking publicly about the decisions immediately after Tuesday’s meeting in Manama. The need for clarity was heightened by the uncertainty over why Borbely was jettisoned along with ethics judge Hans-Joachim Eckert. FIFA’s hierarchy sidestepped requests for detail, taking almost 24 hours to formulate a partial response.

“(FIFA) has already lost the battle of public opinion, we had a good chance to rebuild that and we need to,” former presidential candidate Prince Ali said. “Things cannot be conducted behind closed doors. Everyone wants to know what is going on.”

The void gave Eckert and Borbely a clear run for a day to elevate their own importance to the ethics process and issue hyperbolic – but unchallenged – warnings about the fate of soccer.

The credentials of their replacements as head of the ethics chambers – a Colombian lawyer and Greek judge – have not been disputed. What remains a mystery is exactly why Eckert and Borbely were not only deemed inadequate but discovered their fates only as they flew to Bahrain where they were up for re-election.

After Borbely said his removal will stall the progress of hundreds of ethics cases, Infantino turned on his investigator by asking why the backlog was so big.

FIFA officials evaded questions for weeks about whether rumors Eckert and Borbely were being ditched were accurate, with the German council member indicating that he was misled by Samoura on the eve of Tuesday’s meeting. Reinhard Grindel demanded a “more transparent” process.

The need for more gender equality and geographic diversity was the reason eventually delivered by Infantino on Thursday. Although Borbely was replaced by a Colombian woman, Maria Claudia Rojas, the judge’s role passed from a 69-year-old white German to a 69-year-old white Greek in Vassilios Skouris.

Then there’s the curious case of Miguel Maduro, who was removed as head of the governance committee less than a year after being appointed at a time when Infantino was already on a mission to bring a wider geographic spread.

The 211 soccer federations have the final say approving committee members in the congress and could have rebuffed Infantino. It’s rare, however, to find any debate in the open parliament of soccer. Dissent isn’t encouraged.

“Bear in mind the majority of the congress are totally dependent on FIFA,” Prince Ali said, “so it is very hard to take an opposing view to a president.”

When there was an open clash of views on Thursday – between the Israelis and Palestinians – Infantino engineered a way to prevent the motion being voted on. The president, however, introduced a new proposal that handed power to his council to resolve the matter over settlement teams in the West Bank. Once again, Infantino secured the overwhelming backing of congress in a move Prince Ali branded undemocratic.

“The way business is conducted is the same,” Prince Ali, the Jordanian federation president, said as he compared the Blatter and Infantino administrations. “I don’t see the refreshing change, the openness, the transparency that everybody talks about really taking effect on the ground.”

Infantino counters that the “new FIFA is a democracy, it is not a dictatorship.” And there was refreshing messaging from Infantino – notably embracing corruption investigations publicly in a manner often deficient within the International Olympic Committee leadership.

But a strident warning to corrupt officials to leave soccer was eclipsed by the off-the-cuff attack on “fake news” and “FIFA bashing” he blamed for undermining his presidency

In blaming the messenger – before later backtracking in genial exchanges with reporters – Infantino was channeling the divisionary rhetoric of Blatter. And Blatter is the last person Infantino should be trying to emulate.

After a second congress was overshadowed by criticism of his use of presidential power, Infantino has two years remaining of his mandate to truly lead FIFA into the new, open era promised.

French authorities investigating 2018, 2022 World Cup bids

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PARIS (AP) French financial prosecutors are investigating the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups and have heard former FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

A person with direct knowledge of the investigation told The Associated Press on Thursday that France’s financial prosecutor services (PNF) opened the investigation on grounds of private corruption, criminal association, influence peddling, and benefiting from influence peddling relating to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, which were awarded to Russia and Qatar respectively.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the case.

Blatter was questioned in Switzerland last week as a witness, the same person told the AP.

The office of the attorney general of Switzerland said in a statement that “at the request of and in the context of proceedings being conducted by French justice authorities, it has questioned Mr. Joseph Blatter in his capacity as a person providing information on the 20th April 2017 in Zurich.”

The PNF opened its investigation last year.

FIFA has also been targeted by investigations led by Swiss and US authorities. Last month, FIFA sent 1,300 pages of internal investigation reports into suspected bribery and corruption to Switzerland’s attorney general. The documents complete a 22-month probe by legal firm Quinn Emanuel, which FIFA retained in the fallout from United States and Swiss federal prosecutors revealing their sprawling investigations of soccer corruption in May 2015.

Blatter said last week that he met with U.S. Department of Justice investigators and insisted he was not a suspect in their bribery and corruption case linked to FIFA.

Blatter was suspended from office in September 2015 and later banned from soccer by the FIFA ethics committee.

Former FIFA head Blatter quizzed by US, Swiss investigators

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ZURICH (AP) Sepp Blatter says he met with U.S. Department of Justice officials and is not a suspect in their investigation of corruption linked to FIFA.

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The former FIFA president tells reporters: “I was never a person of interest or under scrutiny by the American justice. Never.”

Blatter’s most recent contact “with lawyers from the United States Justice Department” was several months ago in Switzerland and was also attended by FIFA legal representatives, he says.

Blatter says: “I have been investigated in two or three matters but it’s no wrongdoing. So the only case which is pending for me is the Swiss case.”

Swiss federal prosecutors have also questioned Blatter, though he says “clarification” in their broader FIFA investigation and not related to a criminal proceedings opened against him in September 2015.

Blatter “reckless” to pay Platini $2M, new court ruling says

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LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) Sepp Blatter was “reckless” when he paid $2 million to Michel Platini in a transaction that led both to be banned from world soccer, according to a Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling.

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The former FIFA president also bypassed the body’s executive committee to extend Platini’s pension plan by four years – unlawfully adding more than $1 million to the former UEFA president’s retirement fund.

Details of the hearing in August were revealed in a newly published 68-page verdict written by CAS judges to explain why they dismissed Blatter’s appeal to overturn a six-year ban in December.

As an executive committee member since 2002, Platini was due a pension of 3 percent of his final FIFA stipend – $300,000 in 2015 when he was first banned – for each year of service. It would be paid annually for an equal number of years. By unilaterally supporting Platini’s request to start the plan in 1998, Blatter unlawfully created a pension fund for his former protege of $2.6 million in 2015 instead of $1.52 million, the judges noted.

“The credit awarded to Mr. Platini therefore certainly amounted to a gift as he was not entitled to such credit,” the three judges said, concluding that a six-year ban for the now 81-year-old Blatter is “not disproportionate and, indeed, reasonable and fair.”

“The standard of ethical conduct required under the (FIFA code of ethics) should be and should be seen to be applied to the FIFA President as rigorously as if not more rigorously than that applied to anyone else,” the CAS panel wrote.

The full judgment confirms details never published by the FIFA ethics and appeals committees which previously judged Blatter, the long-time president, and Platini, his expected successor.

Three separate judging panels agreed there was no verbal agreement or valid contract for Platini to receive backdated salary in 2011 for working as Blatter’s presidential adviser from 1998-2002. The soccer officials said they agreed Platini should get 1 million Swiss francs annually, but later signed a contract for 300,000 Swiss francs to ensure he did not earn more than FIFA’s then secretary general.

Platini asked for 2 million Swiss francs ($2 million) – not the 2.8 million Swiss francs he was allegedly owed, the court noted – in 2010 “upon learning of `golden parachutes’ received by (former senior FIFA officials) Mr. Urs Linsi and Mr. Jerome Champagne,” the CAS ruling said.

“(Platini) went to see either the Secretary General or Finance Director of FIFA to say `you know FIFA owes me money,”‘ the ruling said.

By helping force Champagne out of FIFA as Blatter’s trusted international relations director, Platini indirectly earned the French former diplomat a seven-figure severance for his January 2010 exit.

The ruling stated that Blatter testified to recalling his verbal deal with Platini, but had “forgotten that they had a written contract (in 1999).”

“The Panel considers Mr. Blatter’s conduct in the matter as FIFA President reckless, or at least profoundly careless, as he approved the payment without checking the written contract, without asking his employees for the written contract to be checked or doing any verification whatsoever,” the judges said.

Platini, who attended the hearing as a witness, also seemed not to check his contract before requesting money that was paid in 2011, when Blatter was campaigning to win re-election.

“Mr. Platini said that he had not realized he had made a mistake about how much money was owed to him until the Swiss prosecutor showed him a copy of the August 1999 contract in September 2015,” the court said.

Swiss federal police questioned Blatter and Platini at FIFA, one day after opening proceedings against the FIFA president for suspected criminal mismanagement. Platini was described then as “between a witness and an accused person.”

Blatter has not been formally charged by Switzerland’s attorney general. He is also a stated target of an American federal investigation of corruption linked to FIFA officials.

Platini is serving a four-year ban after winning a two-year cut in his sanction from a separate CAS panel. The ban removed the former France national team captain from the UEFA presidency and the February 2016 election race to succeed Blatter.

In the ruling, CAS also noted the “habitual” bonus culture of FIFA at the time of the World Cup hosting votes in December 2010, when Russia was awarded the 2018 tournament and Qatar was given the 2022 edition.

Two days before the vote in Zurich, the FIFA finance committee approved a $200,000 annual bonus for each executive committee member to supplement then-stipends of $100,000, according to CAS.

Blatter: Victimhood was “my destiny”; Qatar World Cup supposed to be in U.S.

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Time isn’t softening the resolve of Sepp Blatter.

FIFA’s disgraced ex-president still sees nothing wrong with his actions in the awarding of World Cups to Russia and Qatar.

Blatter continues to blame former French president Nicolas Sarkozy for the World Cup in Qatar, saying his intention — er, the vote — would’ve given the 2022 World Cup to the United States.

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You know, the country with the attorney general and government who can still punish him.

From Newsweek:

“I regret that [the vote for Qatar] but I cannot change it,” Blatter says when asked if that vote ultimately led to his downfall four and a half years later. “Maybe you are right and if this had not happened I would still be president of FIFA, but nobody is master of his destiny. And my destiny was I would be a victim in this matter. I am a sportsman and I accept you learn to win but you also learn to lose.”

The victim card is an interesting play here, but fairly unsurprising. Blatter cares very much about his legacy, and wants a reprieve. He believes time will tell his story well.

“What I want is, finally, somebody to say one day ‘he has done a good job in FIFA.’” The full article is here.