Fifa’s ‘new broom’ Gianni Infantino not exactly sweeping up the mess | Marina Hyde

Marina Hyde
Gianni Infantino, left, celebrates his election as Fifa president in 2016 with Kuwait’s Sheikh Ahmad, who has resigned from the council following allegations of corruption which he denies. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Can it really be only 14 months since Fifa’s new broom, Gianni Infantino, took office at world football’s governing body – and a mere 11 since he told the world “I can officially inform you the crisis is over”? Next week’s Fifa congress is in Bahrain (but of course), and Infantino approaches it reportedly on the brink of his second personal ethics investigation since ascending to the presidency. His second! One has to admire his ethics ethic.

Then again, there are strong rumours – denied at present – that Infantino will use the congress to push for the replacement of Fifa’s ethics chiefs Hans‑Joachim Eckert and Cornel Borbély; a development which, it is suggested, would prompt a two-year hiatus in ongoing investigations, as the new appointees would be given that sort of timeframe to get on top of their briefs. Say what you like about Fifa, it’s a very understanding place to work.

Broom-wise, though, the newness or otherwise of Gianni has always reminded me of that famous Only Fools and Horses scene when Trigger declares mistily that he’s had the same broom for 20 years, before mentioning that it’s had 17 new heads and 14 new handles. As his mate inquires: “How the hell can it be the same bloody broom then?” On this, as with so much else, I’m with Trigger. No matter how many new heads it has, a Fifa president still feels very much the same bloody broom.

Like his noted predecessors in the office, it feels as if Gianni’s primary function is sweeping crises under the carpet. Still, if we may celebrate his past year’s achievements for a moment: he is the lawyer who was discovered to have failed to sign an employment contract when he took the presidency – “a compliance issue”, it was eventually found, as opposed to an ethical one. Ditto all the private jet flights he took in the early months of his presidency. Occasionally, Infantino has to stoop to things concerning actual football, and has duly instituted a lucrative yet product-aborting 48-team World Cup.

And now, according to reports in last weekend’s Der Spiegel – denied again – he is under preliminary investigation by the ethics committee over allegations of exerting prohibited influence on April’s Confederation of African Football election. Perhaps most explosively, senior Fifa powerbroker Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah has just resigned from all his positions within football, accused last week in all but name of giving bribes to the Guam FA president, Richard Lai, in exchange for votes and support.

Last Thursday, Lai pleaded guilty in a New York court to bribery charges. He was obviously – and presumably until that precise moment – a member of Fifa’s audit and compliance committee.

Sheikh Ahmad insists he is innocent, and will be back in the humble service of football when this crazy misunderstanding has been cleared up – and, as I say, Fifa is traditionally a hugely understanding place to work. They love a prodigal. But with the FBI announcing pointedly that co-conspirators will be hunted down “in jurisdictions such as Asia, the Middle East and around the globe”, let us mourn even the temporary absence of the sheikh, with his heavily cultivated kingmaker reputation and a ponytail that appeared to be overwhelmingly influenced by Steven Seagal’s direct‑to‑bargain‑bin era.

The only solace is that he retains his senior position within the International Olympic Committee, where he was also – would you believe – heavily involved in getting Thomas Bach elected to the presidency. It’s a lifetime of service for these guys. For whatever reason, the IOC have yet to break their silence on this unfortunate development, despite having been so quick out of the traps to cast themselves as morally superior to their fellow Swiss-based governing body in the past. “Enough is enough,” ran one of Bach’s addresses in 2015. “We hope that now, finally, everyone at Fifa has at last understood that they cannot continue to remain passive. They must act swiftly to regain credibility because you cannot forever dissociate the credibility of Fifa from the credibility of football.” So I’m sure we shall hear from the custodian of the Olympic brand in due course.

As for other matters to preoccupy Infantino in the run-up to congress, Le Monde last week reported that French authorities have launched an investigation into the award of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup rights. Last month Fifa announced $369m of losses for 2016, with a bigger hit forecast for 2017. And it has emerged that next year’s World Cup in Russia has managed to convince a mere 10 sponsors to back it. Even the malfunctioning Brazil World Cup had 20 corporate partners at this stage and the latest developments in the Fifa story are hardly likely to stimulate a rush.

On the one hand, we need not worry unduly. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a place where some oligarch or other can frequently be prevailed upon to pick up the slack in the hour of need. So we can expect the bills to be paid one way or another. On the other hand, state TV channels are currently refusing to meet Fifa’s target figure for broadcast rights, leaving the governing body without a broadcaster in the host nation.

So that’s where we find our Infantino on the eve of congress. All presidencies are much more difficult than they look from the outside – we have the current occupant of the Oval Office to thank for that unique insight. Even so, has there ever been a new broom quite as useless as the old one or less equal to the task of clean-up?

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