MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) Gianni Infantino waged a strident defense of his FIFA leadership by lashing out at “fake news” and “alternative facts” promulgated about a governing body he insists has recovered its reputation and can be trusted.
Addressing his second congress of soccer nations as FIFA president, Infantino invoked the rhetoric favored by U.S. President Donald Trump while taking on his critics on Thursday.
Infantino took charge of world soccer in February 2016 after Sepp Blatter was forced out for financial wrongdoing, a branch of a wider scandal that saw FIFA executives indicted by American authorities.
“We are rebuilding the credibility of FIFA. The new FIFA is a democracy it is not a dictatorship,” Infantino said. “New FIFA, it is a transparent organization, not an organization that is fiddling around with facts and figures. It is a deeply honest organization, not an organization that looks to spend money without purpose.”
But Infantino blamed media for distorting coverage of his attempts to rebuild the scandal-battered organization.
“Sadly, the truth is not what is necessarily true but what people believe is true.
“There is a lot of fake news and alternative facts about FIFA circulating. FIFA bashing has become a national sport in some countries.”
Infantino did not cite any specific reports but it comes in the week ethics judge Hans-Joachim Eckert and FIFA prosecutor Cornel Borbely denounced the decision to remove them from their posts.
Infantino made no mention of Eckert and Borbely, who said the president was jeopardizing the post-Blatter reform process by ousting them at the end of their terms. FIFA first embarked on a reform mission in 2011 after election bribery allegations, but a deeper financial scandal exploded four years later with raids in Zurich and the arrest of soccer officials.
“Where were all these self-proclaimed good governance and compliance gurus who were supposed to control FIFA when all this was happening?” asked Infantino, whose former bosses at UEFA were often cited by reform advisers as a barrier to progress. “They all miserably failed. It’s not me saying it. It’s the facts saying it.
“We will not accept any good governance lesson from any of these individuals who have miserably failed in protecting football, protecting FIFA, and in protecting football from FIFA.”
Expanding on the reform supervisors, Infantino said: “What did they do? They simply rubber-stamped a sick and wrong system. It is not me saying it, it is the criminal courts saying it all over the world.”
FIFA has spent tens of millions of dollars on experts to protect its victim status in criminal investigations and reclaim cash from corrupt officials. Infantino issued a plea to officials still hoping to profit through bribery, embezzlement, and fraud.
“If there’s anyone in this room or outside of this room who still thinks he can enrich himself, that he can abuse football, I have one clear and strong message to tell him: Leave football and leave football now. We don’t want you.”
There was applause, and no sign of anyone leaving the room.
FIFA officials remain under criminal investigation in Switzerland and the United States. FIFA audit committee member Richard Lai, an American citizen from Guam, recently pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy charges related to taking around $1 million in bribes including at least $850,000 from Kuwaiti officials. The case implicated Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah, who quit the contest this week to seek re-election to the FIFA Council as a consequence of the allegations.
“A big thanks goes from my side and FIFA’s side to all the authorities who prosecute those who are involved in corruption in football,” Infantino said. “Thank you.”