‘He’s worse than Blatter’
editor of NOS Sports
editor of NOS Sports
“Campione, campione, olé, olé, olé,” blared through the Swiss hotel bar. After the Blatter era, a new president of world soccer federation FIFA stepped inside. A beaming Gianni Infantino was applauded by UEFA’s lobbyists. ‘Their’ Gianni.
It was the finale of a day, Feb. 26, 2016, full of hours of meetings at the FIFA Congress. With, of course, that all-important presidential election. For days UEFA’s strategists kept a low profile, but in the bar, with a beer in hand, they told their victory stories.
The humiliations of the Blatter era were over, they believed. UEFA was now on the ball. A new era would dawn.
Soon after his first election, however, less positive noises were heard about Infantino. Swiss professor Mark Pieth sounded the alarm. Pieth was the architect of reform within FIFA.
During Blatter’s time, he devised a system of independent supervisors to control and clean up the organization from within. It was the reform that led for Blatter yet his own downfall.
Pieth soon saw that Infantino was beginning to resemble his predecessor. “He dazzled,” as Pieth described it, three months after the election.
My concerns have not been alleviated by the transition from Blatter to Infantino. To be honest, I think he is actually worse than Blatter.
By now we are more than seven years on. Just after the much-discussed World Cup in Qatar, the soccer world is preparing for another presidential election. Infantino’s second re-election. And again he is the only candidate.
A good time to return to Pieth for an interim report on Infantino. The Swiss professor is harsh in his assessment: “When I was involved in FIFA, I already saw quite a lot of evidence of corruption. My concerns have not diminished with the transition from Blatter to Infantino. To be honest: I think he is actually worse than Blatter.”
“I would characterize Blatter as the ‘patron’ of a company. A man who wanted power, influence and, of course, money. Infantino is the superlative. He wants to get rich in a much shorter time, seeks absolute power and I would therefore compare him to an autocrat.”
Transparency, good governance and independence are hollow words, according to Pieth, if the right people are not put in the crucial places. “It’s very easy to put all these things on paper, but it’s much harder to put it into practice. You do that by appointing people who will enforce the rules and make sure that that actually happens.”
He was impressed by the experienced supervisors Cornel Borbely and Hans-Joachim Eckert, who, from the ethics commission, ended the careers of Blatter and former UEFA president Michel Platini. However, these supervisors were replaced by Infantino.
‘Afraid of people with guts’
“To me it was clear that they were afraid of people who had the guts to remove Blatter and Platini from soccer. That’s what the ethics commission stood for,” Pieth believes. “Infantino and his friends replaced all those independent people with friends, say, less competent people.”
By this Pieth is referring to Colombia’s Maria Claudia Rojas and Greek Vassilios Skouris, who were supposed to lead the investigations into abuses. “They are not real professionals in this field and they are too dependent on the legal support of the organization,” he explained. “The woman who now has to investigate abuses doesn’t even seem to speak English.”
While Infantino is running for his second re-election, he is still a suspect in a criminal investigation. Swiss prosecutors suspect him of trying to influence police investigations into corruption in international soccer.
The reason is a secret meeting between Infantino and Swiss Attorney General Michael Lauber at a hotel. Lauber was the Swiss leader of the investigation, which was conducted jointly with the FBI and triggered the fall of Sepp Blatter.
Exonerated by regulators
Blatter stepped down before he became an official suspect. Even as a suspect, Infantino had no intention of following suit. He was also cleared by FIFA’s internal regulators. Shortly after the announcement by Swiss justice in July 2020, his nominee Maria Claudia Rojas made that announcement. Even a provisional suspension was unnecessary, according to Rojas.
“I was certainly surprised that he was cleared so quickly. You would expect that they first wanted to know what the Swiss prosecutors would come up with. Especially since the judicial investigation is still ongoing. There was no need to decide that in a few days,” Pieth said of it.
Support from KNVB
Under Blatter, national unions still had the chance to vote blank in a re-election. A way to silently protest even if no opposing candidate presented himself. With Infantino’s previous re-election, the procedure was changed. A round of applause was enough. Opposition became completely invisible.
Whether it will be a vote or applause at the congress in Rwanda; the Swiss can count on the support of the KNVB.
President Just Spee declared last week in the Algemeen Dagblad that Infantino has “sensible ideas” about the way FIFA is run. “You can shout no loudly, but then what? Now you are at the table and you can exercise influence. That is the best thing for Dutch soccer.”
NOS made an interview request to the KNVB this week to discuss support for Infantino, but it was refused by a spokesman.
“I think a little more courage and guts can sometimes come in handy,” Professor Pieth responded understatedly to the turnaround of Dutch soccer administrators.
“Infantino made fools of the European federations when they were denied permission for their action with captain’s bands at the World Cup in Qatar. And they reluctantly agreed to that,” he explained. “The European federations have much more power than they think. They could have put pressure on FIFA, but they showed themselves to be cowards.”
Van Praag understands KNVB support for Infantino’s re-election: ‘Sometimes you have to be sensible’