Like Donald Trump, Fifa moves to silence critics as Gianni Infantino follows Vladimir Putin’s playbook
Gianni Infantino clamps down on detractors by removing word ‘corruption’ from governing body’s ethics code – perhaps he learned a few tips at the World Cup
Standing on the stage as the on-pitch presentation unfolded after the World Cup final at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow last month, Vladimir Putin reached out to touch the trophy with a giddy grin.
Fifa president Gianni Infantino, standing next to the Russian President, was more than happy to facilitate as a gracious gesture.
Infantino had gushed so readily about what great hosts Russia had been, playing right into the Kremlin propaganda machine’s hands as they looked to use the world’s biggest sports tournament to give Russia an image makeover.
“We all fell in love with Russia,” the Italian had said at a round table with Putin. “This is a new image of Russia that we now have.
“Everyone has discovered a beautiful country, a welcoming country, full of people keen to show to the world what sometimes is said is not what happens here.”
While we all know what Fifa gave Russia, it was only this week that we got a glimpse of the other side of the relationship.
Infantino has taken his cue from his new pal Putin, with whom he shared an executive box for the opening game and the final, by beginning a clampdown on his detractors.
Associated Press revealed on Monday that Fifa had overhauled its ethics code with a new offence of defamation added to the document governing the conduct of participants in football.
The new code, updated from the 2012 edition, was given to football officials without a public announcement.
Justifying the move, Fifa said those who “tarnish the reputations of others” must be banned for up to five years.
Fifa defines this defamation as “the act of communicating false information that harms the reputation of an individual or a group”, with its ethics committee to decide what constitutes such false information.
Sound familiar? It’s just a dressed-up way of shouting “fake news” like Putin’s other buddy, Donald Trump, who decries the US media as the “enemy of the people”.
Case in point: just a few days after Fifa’s changes were made public, Trump revoked the security clearance of former CIA director John Brennan because he said mean things about him.
“The world of football is not immune to conduct that aims to tarnish the reputations of others and … must be sanctioned accordingly,” Fifa said in a statement to Associated Press.
“The article concerning defamation is not only there to protect Fifa, but also to protect any other person covered by the code who may be subjected to discriminatory or defamatory statements in the context of Fifa events.”
The word “corruption” has been removed from the code, while cases of bribery, misappropriation of funds and match fixing now have a 10-year statute of limitations.
If you are caught on bribery charges, you face a minimum five-year ban. So if you want to get all your shady stuff in, guys, just make sure it isn’t investigated for a decade, then you’re good to go.
“Although the new code has introduced new time limits for certain serious infringements, the ethics committee believes that 10 years (or 15 years if an investigation is open) is a sufficient period of time in which to complete the investigation in cases of serious infringements,” Fifa said.
“This change will bring more legal certainty to the world of football by ensuring that potential infringements to the code are dealt with in a swift manner.”
So in other words, meet the new boss, same as the old boss – that’s Infantino’s reign as Fifa president in a nutshell.
The 48-year-old succeeded the disgraced Sepp Blatter in 2016 and promised to reform a governing body rocked by a corruption scandal which saw a slew of Fifa officials indicted by the FBI in 2015.
In the wake of that scandal, a semi-independent Fifa ethics committee undertook a reform process that opened the door for Infantino to rise to the top by banning Blatter and Uefa president Michel Platini for malpractice.
Infantino was Uefa’s general secretary at the time, but sealed an upset victory in the Fifa presidential election after a globetrotting campaign where he secured the votes of many member associations by promising increased development funding and investment in their grass roots games.
Cleaning up the corruption in Fifa should surely have been at the top of Infantino’s in-tray when he took power. But in May 2017, the Fifa ethics committee’s chairmen were suddenly removed.
The problem? Their investigations had been hitting too close to home.
According to a report in The Guardian, Swiss prosecutor Cornel Borbely, who chaired the Fifa ethics committee’s investigatory chamber, had been examining complaints that Infantino and Fifa general secretary Fatma Samoura were looking to influence the March 2017 Confederation of African Football (CAF) election in favour of their preferred candidate, Ahmad Ahmad.
It is claimed Infantino and Samoura promised football association presidents in private meetings that they would speed up payments of Fifa development money to them if they voted for Ahmad.
Infantino is also believed to have wanted to oust Issa Hayatou because the long-standing CAF president supported Infantino’s Fifa presidential election rival Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa of Bahrain.
Along with Borbely, former German judge Hans-Joachim Eckert, who chaired the ethics committee’s adjudicatory chamber which decided on sanctions after assessing the investigations, was also removed.
Fifa and Infantino simply decided not to renew their four-year terms, and gave them no notice, despite Eckert and Borbely saying they had been working on “hundreds of cases” of potential Fifa malpractice.
The reform process that had been undertaken in the wake of the 2015 scandal was being “neutralised” and “incapacitated” according to the duo.
Infantino, who had also reportedly been investigated over his use of private jets – but cleared of any wrongdoing – then denied he instigated Eckert and Borbely’s removal at the annual Fifa congress in Bahrain two days later.
“There is a lot of fake news and alternative news about Fifa circulating. Fifa bashing has become a national sport, especially in some countries,” he said.
Again – remind you of anyone?
It’s a favoured tactic of autocratic despots to go on the front foot when questioned, something Putin and the Kremlin have perfected with their constant cries of “Russophobia” whenever anyone presents them with facts they don’t like.
Asked to explain his comments at a press conference after the Congress meeting, Infantino backtracked a bit, saying it was “my feeling … there are a lot of people spreading a lot of wrong and false information”. He couldn’t provide any evidence.
The investigations into Infantino stopped afterwards. Eckert and Borbely’s successors, ethics judge Vassilios Skouris and prosecutor Maria Claudia Rojas, have not been made available to answer media questions since.
Denying the media a chance to hold you accountable is another tenet of Putin’s strategy – just ask Trump administration press secretary Sarah Sanders, on one of the rare occasions she actually holds a press briefing so you can ask her a question.