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Column: Infantino must prove FIFA commitment to cleaning up

When members of soccer’s hierarchy were plucked from their Zurich bedrooms at dawn by police in May 2015, any vestiges of trust remaining in FIFA vanished.

As the first FIFA trial concludes in New York and a former vice president is sent to jail, the governing body still hasn’t shown the corrupt culture that infected soccer has been eradicated.

Officials booted out in the last year while trying to clean up the game still question the commitment of the post-Sepp Blatter FIFA, led by Gianni Infantino, to meaningfully banish the rogues.

FIFA still tries to portray itself as the victim of the corruption of dozens of soccer officials. It even wants a cut of the more than $200 million being reclaimed from individuals and marketing companies. And yet, incongruously, FIFA brazenly disputes the U.S. Department of Justice’s portrayal as this being a case centered on FIFA.

It is all about the tournaments or television rights in the Americas, FIFA contends, overlooking the former members of its top brass implicated in bribery and the allegations aired in court about World Cup hosting votes and television rights deals.

FIFA has often given the impression of doing the bare minimum against officials implicated in wrongdoing. Willful blindness or complicity?

The wave of arrests in 2015 was the result of wiretaps and stacks of evidence being gathered by criminal investigators, not proactive moves by FIFA.

Before then, FIFA begrudgingly implemented ethics processes that eventually brought down Blatter.

But too often FIFA sneered at campaigners advocating reforms, and acted half-heartedly against those illegally profiting from the game.

Only once FIFA realized American prosecutors were at their doors did overhauling the governance of the game become a priority.

Infantino was well-placed to shape the future of FIFA. Then general secretary at European body UEFA, the Swiss-Italian served on the FIFA reform committee in 2015 just as a path to the FIFA presidency opened up as favorite Michel Platini was toppled by financial wrongdoing.

But this committee also featured:

– Markus Kattner, who was subsequently fired by FIFA in 2016 over unauthorized bonuses worth millions of dollars while finance chief;

– Sheikh Ahmad, who was implicated this year in another bribery plot unearthed by American prosecutors and forced off FIFA’s ruling council;

– Gorka Villar, the former director general of South American confederation CONMEBOL who was arrested in a Spanish corruption investigation in July.

There were several meaningful reforms, such as 12-year term limits for FIFA presidents and council members, but other recommendations have fallen by the wayside.

The finance committee – headed for years by Blatter’s bribe-taking right-hand man Julio Grondona – does not now, as envisaged in 2015, have a majority of independent members to protect FIFA’s cash.

There has also been no recalibration of power to dilute the authority of the FIFA president.

Criticism came this month in a report from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). Infantino’s ”micro-management” and control appears as ”strong as under the previous leadership.” Fatma Samoura, the first African secretary general, has not gained the authority envisaged.

The politicians behind the PACE report were deeply skeptical over the actions of FIFA’s new leadership, while not doubting Infantino’s integrity.

The lack of separation of political and administrative functions is problematic.

In his first elected position, Infantino has to maintain political goodwill within the game.

In a warning to soccer leaders in May, Infantino declared: ”If there’s anyone in this room … who still feels he can enrich himself leave football now. We don’t want you.”

Tough talk from Infantino does not seem a charade.

But how willing is Infantino to rock the boat of an institution where maintaining the political goodwill of the majority of the 211 FIFA nations is required to win re-election in 2019?

”The leadership of football does not answer to the court of public opinion,” former FIFA governance officials Navi Pillay, Miguel Poiares Maduro and Joseph Weiler wrote in an op-ed published in European papers this week. ”It responds to its own constituency that would replace leadership which seriously tried to reform football.”

Just look at the murkiness around the departures of key personnel, including Maduro, who were installed to enforce better working practices or banish the offenders. The inadequate explanation and communication to the media, public and – most significantly – to some members of the ruling council gave the impression Infantino was acting sneakily.

Infantino cannot expect the sudden jettisoning of the ethics judge and investigator to be so accepted without question when they were in the midst of awkward probes into the leadership of the Russia World Cup and had looked into elements of the FIFA president’s own conduct.

”The general feeling is that FIFA Council and Mr. Infantino in particular wished to get rid of persons who might have embarrassed them,” former Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe President Anne Brasseur wrote in her report.

Infantino needs to heed the advice of the FIFA reform report he helped to author.

”It is abundantly clear that football fans and FIFA’s commercial partners will no longer accept anything short of full transparency in how football is governed,” it stated.

Perhaps that is why more than 20 sponsor slots remain vacant for the 2018 World Cup – a tournament whose chief organizer remains Vitaly Mutko despite Russia’s deputy prime minster helping to sabotage the 2014 Winter Olympics through a doping program.

”Unethical behavior cannot be tolerated,” that 2015 FIFA reform report stated and yet Infantino appeared alongside Mutko in Moscow this month at the World Cup draw.

Maduro, the FIFA governance committee head until May, testified to British politicians in September that he was told action against Mutko would be a ”disaster” for the 2018 World Cup and Infantino’s presidency could be jeopardized.

Infantino disputed the claims. He needs a successful World Cup to show FIFA is back on track but that cannot be at the expense of taking action where necessary.

Will Infantino order an investigation into the fresh bribery allegations around Qatar’s 2022 World Cup bid? The Gulf nation has been previously cleared to remain host but the untested claims from the New York court leave a fresh cloud over the bid’s conduct.

Will Infantino order a deep examination of World Cup broadcast contrasts after claims bribes were paid by officials with networks across the Americas?

This is Infantino’s chance to show how committed he really is to overhauling the bloated culture of FIFA, a notional non-for-profit organization that still spends on vanity projects like the wealthiest of private entities.

And the question remains whether soccer fans should now be able to trust FIFA? The organization declined to put anyone up for interview to answer it.

More AP FIFA coverage:


FIFA trial exposes bribes culture; WCup, Olympic cases loom

GENEVA (AP) The verdict is in: FIFA is not going to move past a sweeping bribery investigation into international soccer so easily.

A former FIFA vice president for South America and the Brazilian head of the 2014 World Cup organizing committee were found guilty of racketeering charges in a federal court in New York on Friday.

Juan Angel Napout of Paraguay and Jose Maria Marin denied the kind of corruption charges that more than 20 soccer and marketing executives working across the Americas have already admitted to the U.S. Department of Justice. More have been indicted and are fighting extradition.

Jurors will resume next week deliberating on racketeering charges against the third defendant, Manuel Burga, Peru’s former soccer leader who sat on a FIFA panel distributing tens of millions of dollars in project grants.

Evidence in a six-week trial often did not directly touch soccer games and commercial deals run from FIFA’s home in Zurich.

Still, a deep culture of corruption was exposed among people embedded in FIFA’s so-called ”football family.”

With prosecutors in four countries now helping each other investigate sports corruption – including in World Cup and Olympic bid races – here is a closer look at the FIFA trial:


For more than 20 years, some soccer officials acted as if they were entitled to kickbacks from broadcasting and sponsorship deals. And they acted as if they were untouchable by sports judicial bodies, despite warning signs from criminal and civil court cases that touched FIFA in Switzerland up to a decade ago.

In Brooklyn federal court a picture was painted of South American men high in the FIFA hierarchy routinely taking payments of hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes millions.

The three defendants were second-tier figures in the bigger FIFA picture. Yet each got $4.4 million to $10.5 million in bribes since 2010, prosecutors said.

In the U.S. federal agencies’ wider investigation of soccer officials across the Americas, some of the more than 40 people charged allegedly were paid and took bribes dating back 25 years. Many pleaded guilty for reduced sentences.


It was no secret that some South American soccer leaders were corrupt.

The two men convicted Friday were relatively late arrivals on the soccer bribery scene. At times in court it seemed a previous generation who long held South America’s influence at FIFA were also on trial.

Indeed, Napout and Burga were said to be in a ”Group of Six” seeking a share of power and bribes routinely taken by Julio Grondona of Argentina, Ricardo Teixeira of Brazil and Nicolas Leoz of Paraguay.

Grondona was FIFA’s senior vice president – second in command to Sepp Blatter – and finance committee chairman when he died in July 2014 aged 82. He is ”co-conspirator 1” in Department of Justice indictments unsealed in 2015.

Teixeira and Leoz were also indicted but have not been extradited. Both left the FIFA executive committee by April 2013 to avoid ethics committee bans for taking kickbacks from World Cup TV deals in a previous scandal known as the ISL case.

As new FIFA leaders try to win public trust, its vice president from South America is another Paraguayan, Alejandro Dominguez.

Yet Dominguez, the new FIFA finance chairman, was described unfavorably in court. Star prosecution witness Alejandro Burzaco said Napout told him Dominguez was ”not a very successful businessman (who) will probably request” a bribe.


The tiny, wealthy 2022 World Cup host nation also had a tough trial.

Qatar spent much of the past seven years denying it bought victory or acted improperly toward FIFA voters.

Still, testimony in Brooklyn suggested a broader plan to build influence among voters’ colleagues, even if the defendants had no vote when FIFA’s executive committee picked the 2018-2022 World Cup hosts in December 2010.

However, Grondona, Teixeira and Leoz did have votes. South America’s trio ultimately supported Qatar in a five-nation 2022 contest, beating the U.S. in the final round.

In court, star witness Burzaco – an Argentine marketing executive who paid bribes and made a deal with prosecutors to testify – described his associate Grondona complaining to Qataris at a five-star hotel in Rio de Janeiro about selling his vote too cheaply.

Grondona said he got into ”all these mess and scandal for only” $1.5 million, while Teixeira got tens of millions,” Burzaco said.

Another witness, from a different Argentine agency, testified that a ledger of bribes included payments of $750,000 and $500,000 to South American soccer federation presidents who did not have World Cup hosting votes. The payments were labeled ”Q2022.”

At a Madrid hotel before the 2010 Champions League final, South American soccer officials were told that $15 million from Qatari interests was available as bribes money, according to one witness who has pleaded guilty, Luis Bedoya of Colombia.

Nothing said in court appears to directly threaten World Cup hosting for Qatar, which remains under blockade by its regional neighbors.

Still, it fueled the idea that Qatar’s path toward its greatest sporting moment will never be smooth.


FIFA has paid tens of millions of dollars to American lawyers and media consultants to help persuade the Department of Justice it is a victim of corruption, and not complicit.

That investment seemed to pay off in court. Direct references to FIFA leaders and staffers were rarely heard.

That should help FIFA get a share of more than $200 million in forfeitures by agencies and people who have been indicted or pleaded guilty in the wider case.

FIFA’s restitution claim in March 2016 was for $38.2 million plus legal fees and compensation for reputational damage.

A longer-term issue for FIFA is its 2026 and 2030 World Cup broadcast partners. While not charged in the American case, Fox Sports, Globo of Brazil, Televisa of Mexico were mentioned in testimony. They allegedly teamed up to bribe Grondona with $15 million to secure two-tournament deals in South America.

Another 2026-2030 rights holder, Qatar’s BeIN, is already under criminal investigation in Switzerland for suspected bribery in that deal.


On June 13 in Moscow, FIFA member federations will pick the 2026 World Cup host.

The North American bid – splitting 60 games in the United States, 10 in Canada, 10 in Mexico – is favored to win. It is unclear if the other bidder, Morocco, can even stage an expanded 48-team tournament.

But will voters reward the nation whose law enforcement agencies shook FIFA to its core? They might be persuaded by money.

FIFA relies on World Cup commercial deals for about 85 percent of its income. It likely will need a bankable World Cup after under-performing sponsorship programs for the next two editions in Russia and Qatar.

A North American World Cup should set records for average game attendance and profitability.

It could also woo potential sponsors currently wary of working with a FIFA that risked being indicted.


Brooklyn; Bern, Switzerland; Paris; Rio de Janeiro.

In all four cities federal prosecutors are pursuing allegations of corruption in global sports, including winning bids for the 2006, 2010, 2018 and 2022 World Cups, plus the 2016 and 2020 Olympics.

Suspects so far include Germany soccer great Franz Beckenbauer, 2016 Rio Olympics organizer Carlos Nuzman, and one-time International Olympic Committee rising star Frank Fredericks.

A protected witness in the U.S. is Russian doping whistleblower Grigory Rodchenkov, former director of the Moscow testing laboratory.

In Brooklyn, a spin-off case saw a former FIFA audit committee member from Guam plead guilty to taking bribes from an Olympic Council of Asia account. The clearly identified ”co-conspirator 2” in that case is a kingpin of Olympic politics, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah of Kuwait.

Prosecutors in four cities, sharing information, taking years to build cases.

More seem sure to follow.

More AP FIFA coverage:


Hockey (Night?) In China

Nothing better to do at 4:30 am?  Tune in for some Vancouver Canucks hockey, live from Beijing!  The Los Angeles Kings face the ‘Nucks in the first game of an NHL awareness project hoping to promote the game in China, who has an active program encouraging the uptake of winter sports.

1.3 billion people.  That is a large market to try to tap into, and the NHL likely didn’t do itself a great service by withdrawing from the upcoming games in South Korea.  But, they are (in my opinion) basically committing to 2020, when China will be the host.

The Chinese are already attempting to grow their hockey program, called “Red Star “.  In games against more established Red Star gets pounded into the ground, but that might be set to change, as they are offering incentives to North American Chinese players who come over to play on their team and in their program.  Notably, their women’s program has already tried to make inroads by adding a team which will play in North America.  Not sure about the status of all that…

All in all, I think growing the game is always a good thing and this is no different, even if it is a communist country.  The new Soviet?  NAH…

Anyway, this game will feature some top-line players, as the Canucks already played the other half of their split-squad against the Flames earlier in the night.  I know Doughty is playing for the Kings as is Muzzin, but it’s early yet.  Oh, there’s Kopitar!

Anyway, it’s late, so I won’t get into this too much save to say it feels strange being up this early watching non-Olympic hockey.


  • In the earlier game, we saw some great play from Brock Boeser, who I think is an amazing prospect.  He has great instincts for a young defenceman, and can back it up with the skills to finish.  His goal tonight, while likely different against real NHL defencemen, was a thing of beauty, exhibiting great patience, a nose for open-ice, and the poised finish you see from the greats.

  • But the highlight of the night was a save by Calgary goalie, Jon Gillies.

  • The Ottawa Senators have lost center Colin White for 6-8 weeks with a broken wrist.  White looked like he was due to crack the opening night roster.
  • Jonathan Drouin made his long-awaited debut with the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday, grabbing an assist.  He looked right at home.
  • Blues forward Alex Steen will miss the rest of training camp with a hand injury.  Defenceman Jay Bouwmeester, also of the Blues, will have his leg injury re-evaluated in three weeks.  Finally, forward Zach Sanford will be out a good 4-6 months rehabbing a dislocated/separated shoulder.
  • Erik Cole signed a one-day contract to retire as a member of the Carolina Hurricanes.
  • Florida Panthers forward Vincent Trochek will miss some time with an injury.
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