In­fantino fight­ing re­sis­tance to over­haul FIFA

Malta Independent - - SPORT - Rob Har­ris AP Global Soc­cer Writer

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.

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 or­gan­i­sa­tion 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 au­tho­ris­ing 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.

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 30minute 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 deal­ing with that. 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.

“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 or­gan­i­sa­tion 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 in­ves­tiga- tion 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.”

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-to­day 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 or­gan­iser 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 40coun­try 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.

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 pro­gramme. 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 pri­ori­tised en­hanc­ing FIFA’s re­la­tions with clubs, host­ing Barcelona’s pres­i­dent in Zurich on Thurs­day to “reestab­lish 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 de­ci­sion.

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.

“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, fouryear 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.

FIFA Pres­i­dent Gianni In­fantino speaks dur­ing the vote for the new UEFA pres­i­dent in Athens last week

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