Over a span of four months, from October 2015 to January 2016, the FIFA Ethics Committee removed the three most powerful men in football – Sepp Blatter, Jerome Valcke, and Michel Platini – from office, and banned them from the game.
It was an extremely hopeful stretch in the dark history of the world’s governing body. There was, at that time, legitimate hope that FIFA might be rid of the corruption that was its defining characteristic during Blatter’s seventeen-year reign.
That hope feels very far away right now.
On Tuesday, FIFA – under the leadership of new, US-backed president Gianni Infantino – decimated the Ethics Committee that was so instrumental in toppling the previous regime by firing all but two of the committee’s members.
It was the kind of brazen, self-preserving move that was commonplace under Blatter. According to The Guardian, hundreds of ethics committee investigations will now be stalled indefinitely.
The departing prosecutor, Cornel Borbély, said in a press conference on Wednesday in Bahrain that “This is a huge setback. The reform process has at least stepped backwards for several years.”
The decision was especially damning because, if anything, the ethics committee as it was constructed was a shy police force.
The body failed to move against FIFA’s top officials until after the US Department of Justice started making headway in 2015, and refused to release the findings of a high-profile report on FIFA corruption, especially as it related to the Qatar World Cup bid, by its former top investigator Michael J. Garcia.
The only takeaway here is simple: Infantino, along with FIFA’s top officials, do not want any semblance of an independent committee investigating their dealings.
Infantino was investigated but ultimately not charged by the ethics committee last year when the Panama Papers implicated him in a corruption scandal involving UEFA’s TV rights deals.
Borbély and outgoing judge Hans-Joachim Eckert said in a joint statement that the decision to gut their committee was “clearly politically motivated.”
FIFA has put forward replacements for the dismissed committee members, but it’s awfully difficult to imagine that those new appointees will have the independent authority they would ostensibly need to do their jobs effectively.
The likes of Borbély and Eckert weren’t the only ones to lose their jobs at FIFA’s annual congress this week. Miguel Maduro, who chaired the governance committee, was also sent packing.
Why? Maduro, last March, refused to allow Russian deputy prime minister Vitaly Mutko to run again for the FIFA Council because FIFA bars its officials from active political engagement.
Mutko, one of the highest-ranking officials in the government of Vladimir Putin, was clearly in violation of that rule. But considering Russia’s power and status as the next World Cup host, Maduro’s decision was still a strong one. He paid the price.
The faces have changed, but FIFA’s modus operandi has not. The rules do not matter. No one is allowed to cross those at the top, no matter how corrupt they may be.
FIFA is not an appreciably different organization from what it was when Blatter and his cronies were running the show.
Infantino hasn’t yet – so far as we know – bought elections or sold World Cups, and he doesn’t suffer from Blatter’s senility, but he does not appear at all interested in cleaning FIFA up. The actions of the last week would suggest that he wants to do business as it has always been done.
For Sunil Gulati and US Soccer, whose support of Infantino in the second round of last year’s FIFA Presidential Election was integral in helping the European score an upset victory, that should sting.
Of course, FIFA handing the 2026 World Cup to the US, Mexico, and Canada should help keep Gulati in line.
It’s not just in the ethical arena where FIFA has failed to progress in the Infantino era. Important and long-overdue reforms to increase the power and visibility of women in FIFA have also, as Grant Wahl put it on Wednesday, have become a farce.
As of last year, FIFA requires that each continent have a woman fill a council seat. But the elections for those council seats are decided by federation presidents, and all but two of those presidents are men.
That’s how you get the results Australia’s Moya Dodd, who Wahl called “the most influential woman in FIFA in recent years” losing her seat to a Bangladeshi candidate who didn’t know which country won the last World Cup.
That candidate, who first guessed that Japan had won the tournament, defeated Dodd by a 27-17 margin. Strong women appear as unwelcome at FIFA as they ever have been.
To date, Infantino’s landmark accomplishment was expanding the men’s World Cup from 32 to 48 teams – a lucrative move designed to boost the non-European federations that, as a bloc, hold considerable power within FIFA.
Those countries will have more bids, more money, and more reason to support the existing power structure. Problem is, World Cup expansion will destroy the tournament as we know it.
Qualifying, currently considered cause for a national holiday in smaller countries, will become bloodless. The format of the tournament will become clunky; it’s early stages lopsided, mediocre, and full of bad teams and competitive mismatches.
Considering that the men’s World Cup is FIFA and the sporting world’s crown jewel, ruining it seems like a bad thing for the federation’s president to do.
When Infantino was elected two February’s ago, he announced in his victory speech that “FIFA has gone through sad times, times of crisis. Those times are over. We will restore the image of FIFA.”
So far, he and those around him have done no such thing – and, considering the events of the last week, there is no reason to believe they ever will. FIFA is no different today than it ever has been.
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