Trust us, please

FIFA’s uphill strug­gle to re­gain trust of soc­cer, spon­sors

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - ROB HARRIS

Even af­ter a year un­der new lead­er­ship, FIFA is still plead­ing with the world: Trust us. The mes­sage is prov­ing as hard to sell as spon­sor­ship of the World Cup. It’s no won­der. Gianni In­fantino ar­rives at his sec­ond congress as FIFA pres­i­dent with his “cri­sis is over” dec­la­ra­tion at last year’s gath­er­ing of soc­cer’s 211 na­tions look­ing re­mark­ably out­landish. Crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tions are still exposing shady trans­ac­tions. The suit­abil­ity of mem­bers of the rul­ing coun­cil re­mains in doubt. Re­forms in­tended to curb the pow­ers of the pres­i­dent and re­store FIFA’s cred­i­bil­ity are be­ing eroded. Against this back­drop, FIFA has been try­ing to per­suade com­mer­cial back­ers to sign up af­ter so many were scared off by the cor­rup­tion that plagued the Sepp Blat­ter era. FIFA’s lead­er­ship was able to start its congress week in Bahrain by trum­pet­ing the ar­rival of Qatar Air­ways to fill the air­line spon­sor­ship cat­e­gory that has been va­cant for more than two years. But the deal was an­tic­i­pated given it is the state-owned car­rier of the 2022 World Cup hosts. A true test of the con­fi­dence of FIFA’s new hi­er­ar­chy will come when ma­jor in­ter­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions sign up that are not from China, Rus­sia or Qatar — the source of all of FIFA’s new World Cup deals in re­cent years. New spon­sors in tra­di­tional strongholds like Ja­pan and the United States have yet to con­vince share­hold­ers they should part­ner with a scan­dal-tainted or­ga­ni­za­tion. Many were scared off in 2015 when FIFA’s rep­u­ta­tion was shred­ded by wide­spread bribery be­ing ex­posed af­ter high-rank­ing ex­ec­u­tives were ar­rested in Zurich ho­tel raids. “We hope that more (spon­sors) will come be­fore the end of the year,” FIFA sec­re­tary gen­eral Fatma Samoura told The As­so­ci­ated Press. “That was a strong sig­nal from Qatar Air­ways to rec­og­nize the new lead­er­ship of FIFA is work­ing to­ward restor­ing the im­age of FIFA and that there is cli­mate of trust that is re­ally here to push for more part­ner­ships.” Trust, ac­cord­ing to Samoura, also comes through a new gen­er­a­tion of of­fi­cials be­ing elected to the FIFA Coun­cil. “It’s a strong demon­stra­tion that gender em­pow­er­ment,” Samoura said, point­ing to Mah­fuza Akhter of Bangladesh be­ing elected on Tues­day as Asia’s fe­male rep­re­sen­ta­tive at FIFA. It was a sur­prise re­sult. Moya Dodd, an out­spo­ken critic of cor­rup­tion and prom­i­nent cham­pion of women’s foot­ball, lost to Akhter, who couldn’t name the Women’s World Cup holder in a post-elec­tion in­ter­view. Amer­i­can soc­cer stars Alex Mor­gan and Carli Lloyd were among those to ex­press sur­prise at the set­back for Dodd, an Aus­tralian lawyer who is still on the Asian Foot­ball Con­fed­er­a­tion ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee. “I’m sure she will land on her feet some­how in foot­ball,” said Samoura, who was hired last year as FIFA’s first fe­male sec­re­tary gen­eral. “She has foot­ball in her heart and I’m sure that FIFA or an­other con­fed­er­a­tion or her home fed­er­a­tion will con­tinue to make good use of her skills.” Those skills were used by a re­form com­mit­tee in 2015 that helped to re­shape FIFA fol­low­ing the U.S. Depart­ment of Jus­tice in­dict­ments of soc­cer of­fi­cials. The progress of some re­forms, how­ever, ap­pears to have stalled — de­spite In­fantino help­ing to draft them in the FIFA-ap­pointed ad­vi­sory panel while he was a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date. Power should have drained from the pres­i­dency to the CEO-like sec­re­tary gen­eral, but In­fantino has re­tained a Blat­ter-like grip on ex­ec­u­tive author­ity. A new FIFA Bureau that was not on the re­form program now has given more author­ity to In­fantino and the six re­gional con­fed­er­a­tion lead­ers, whose de­ci­sions need not be rat­i­fied by a 37-strong coun­cil that re­placed the dis­cred­ited ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee. “That can be the ap­pear­ance,” CONCACAF pres­i­dent Vic­tor Mon­tagliani said, “but I think the col­lab­o­ra­tions at the coun­cil level and the dis­cus­sions are quite healthy. The bureau is there to act in be­tween when the coun­cil meets. If there are de­ci­sions that are needed on a timely ba­sis for op­er­a­tional is­sues they have to be made.” The most re­cent ad­di­tion to the bureau and coun­cil is Ah­mad Ah­mad, who ended Issa Hay­a­tou’s 29-year grip on power in Africa in March. But the FIFA vice-pres­i­dent has un­wel­come links to the tainted old regime. Email cor­re­spon­dence be­tween Ah­mad and an aide to dis­graced for­mer FIFA pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Mo­hamed bin Ham­mam of Qatar was pub­lished by Bri­tish news­pa­per The Sun­day Times in 2014. The emails from 2010 de­tailed Ah­mad re­mind­ing Bin Ham­mam that he promised money to help Ah­mad’s re-elec­tion cam­paign to lead the Mada­gas­car fed­er­a­tion. The Bin Ham­mam aide who Ah­mad was email­ing was banned for life by the FIFA ethics com­mit­tee in Jan­uary for in­volve­ment in un­eth­i­cal pay­ments made to soc­cer of­fi­cials. “If it’s your idea, take it, give it,” Ah­mad re­sponded vaguely when asked about the pay­ments on Wed­nes­day. “Ask him. Don’t ask me.” FIFA has lost two of­fi­cials re­cently fol­low­ing fresh Amer­i­can rev­e­la­tions about wrong­do­ing. FIFA au­dit com­mit­tee mem­ber Richard 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 cash was to buy in­flu­ence and help re­cruit other Asian soc­cer of­fi­cials pre­pared to take bribes, Lai said in court in New York. Kuwaiti power bro­ker Sheikh Ah­mad Al Fa­had Al Sabah was im­pli­cated in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion and, de­spite main­tain­ing his in­no­cence, he quit the elec­tion to re­gain his seat on the FIFA Coun­cil. There has been spec­u­la­tion that Hans-Joachim Eck­ert, the ethics judge who brought down Blat­ter, could be re­placed along with ethics in­ves­ti­ga­tor Cor­nel Bor­bely. They must seek re-elec­tion at Thurs­day’s congress but FIFA has re­peat­edly de­clined to pro­vide lists of can­di­dates to lead its ju­di­cial bod­ies. In­fantino is sus­pected of a per­sonal mo­tive to in­stall new ethics lead­er­ship, al­though he hasn’t called for Eck­ert and Bor­bely to go. The for­mer UEFA gen­eral sec­re­tary was frus­trated that he faced an ethics in­ves­ti­ga­tion last year for his use of pri­vate jets early in his pres­i­dency. The case cast doubt over the “new era” in FIFA pro­claimed last year by In­fantino. The old FIFA ways con­tinue to seem hard to shake off.

ROB HARRIS, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

The spec­tre of fresh cor­rup­tion scan­dals hangs over the an­nual gath­er­ing of world soc­cer lead­ers, two years af­ter the FIFA Congress was shaken by the ex­po­sure of far-reach­ing fraud.

DIEU NALIO CHERY, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

One year af­ter pro­claim­ing the "cri­sis is over" Gianni In­fantino and FIFA are still fac­ing scan­dal and in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

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