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.