By Steve Alabi
There is fire again on FIFA’s mountain. The President, Gianni Infantino, is again subject of criminal allegations that may have damning effect on the beautiful game worldwide. The first time was 2017 when uncovered emails revealed he held unreported meetings with the Swiss Attorney General, Michael Lauber. The same complaints made in relation to these meetings are the planks of the new criminal allegations levelled against him by Swiss authorities. His predecessor, Sepp Blatter, who himself was harried out of office in great disgrace on similar allegations, is clamouring for the heavens to also fall on Infantino. For me, why not? What is good for the geese should be good for the gander.
Pray, what is it that makes corruption a perpetual vice in high places in both global and local football? The list of football administrators under the spotlight on fraud allegations is endless, from the littlest club to the hallowed chambers of the global body in Switzerland. If care is not taken, corruption in football may become a subject of academic inquiry in higher institutions. Such is the unenviable history of corruption in football and the symbiotic relationship that fraud and football seem to have developed.
Blatter and a host of other football big guns left the klieg lights in a hail of charges of “rampant, systemic, deep-rooted” corruption in 2015. Many are still subject of criminal investigations and prosecutions in several jurisdictions, including Switzerland, France and the United States. Many have lost their pride, integrity and dignity. The reputation of the global body itself is damaged considerably.
This sickening development seemed to have started in the presidency of Joao Havelange who, we must admit, expanded the frontiers of the game beyond the routine and rhyme of the early days. If we invest him with the title of the Architect of Modern Football, it would not be out of place. But most unfortunately, we will not be off the mark if we accuse him of being the Architect of Corruption in the game. The most ignominious was the desecration of leadership through the abominable handover of authority to hired hands.
Contrary to traditions well laid out since FIFA was founded in 1901, Havelange manoeuvred his Secretary General, Sepp Blatter to succeed him as President. As events later revealed, this happened apparently to cover stained tracks. The custom from the beginning was for contestants to emerge from the continental federations, usually people with varied and wide experience as elected presidents over time in both their national association and continental body. Havelange himself took over from Sir Stanley Rous as a contestant from his continental federation, CONMEBOL, having served as President of the Brazilian federation from 1958 to 1973. Rous himself took over from Arthur Drewry, after serving as Vice President of UEFA.
Blatter was the first paid employee to take FIFA’S top position. He never headed any association. He never contested for leadership anywhere. He was merely a hired help who began his career in FIFA as Technical Director before ending up as General Secretary. Even if the eligibility rules did not specify it, it was simply incongruous to step from hired help to become the overall boss of global football. Here was someone whose beat was to take minutes of the Board and be at the beck and call of elected officials suddenly transmuting to the chair. The propensity to get swollen headed and misbehave could hardly be overcome.
Unfortunately, the world did not learn from the Blatter mistake. It ominously entrusted the work of redemption to another hired hand. Like Blatter, Infantino merely worked as a staff of UEFA before assuming the Presidency of FIFA. He also never headed any association. He also never contested for leadership anywhere. His first stint in UEFA was in 2000. He became its Director of Legal Affairs in 2004 before rising to the position of General Secretary five years later. If Michel Platini, the UEFA President under whom he served, had not messed up, it is inconceivable that Infantino would ever have contemplated, let alone becoming FIFA President. Platini was seen by many as the person to take over FIFA from the misbehaving Blatter until his own integrity was compromised and the edifice of global football shook to its very foundation.
FIFA has reacted angrily to the Swiss criminal investigations against Infantino, insisting scornfully that there was “no factual basis whatsoever” for any allegations of criminality. I do not agree with this combative response. In my judgement, it raises more questions than it answers. It would have been more appropriate and honourable to await details of the criminal allegations before issuing a sweeping rebuff. FIFA needs a cleaner image than it has. Where allegations of any sort surface, FIFA owes a duty to explain, instead of behaving like a typical Nigerian politician accused of corruption who would leave allegations unanswered and grandstands.
If Blatter who did not occupy position as an anti-corruption crusader could be forced out on similar allegations, the minimum one expects of a person advertised as a sweeping broom is not only to be above board but also to be seen to be above board. The FIFA reaction simply puts more fuel to the fire on its mountain.
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