- No factual basis for claims of criminality, says Alasdair Bell
- Investigation relates to meetings with then attorney general
David Conn – The Guardian
Fifa has robustly defended its president, Gianni Infantino, and expressed impatience with Swiss claims of corruption with the previous regime. Photograph: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images
Fifa has forcefully rejected any suggestion of wrongdoing against its president, Gianni Infantino, after the Swiss special federal prosecutor, Stefan Keller, announced a criminal investigation into him last week.
In a combative, at times scornful response, Fifa’s deputy general secretary, Alasdair Bell, said there was “no factual basis whatsoever” for any allegations of criminality. He said Fifa had not yet even been notified of any allegations, and he expressed impatience with the Swiss investigations into alleged corruption during the previous Fifa regime before Infantino was elected in February 2016, promising to reform and clean up Fifa.
The new criminal investigation relates to three meetings Infantino had after his election, with Switzerland’s then attorney general Michael Lauber, who was investigating many different allegations of corruption under the previous president of 17 years, Sepp Blatter. Bell was adamant that the purpose of the meetings, two in 2016 and one in 2017, was for Infantino to discuss the investigations, assure Lauber that he was intent on reforming Fifa, and to “offer cooperation”. The meetings were initially arranged by Rinaldo Arnold, an old friend of Infantino’s, who was also a prosecutor.
Controversy about the meetings has escalated into difficulties for Lauber about his recollections of the 2017 discussion in particular, and he resigned last month after official criticism, although he denies any wrongdoing. Bell said it was justifiable for Infantino not to take notes in a meeting such as that, and said Fifa did not accept he could have done anything wrong by agreeing to meet the country’s most senior law officer.
“There is no factual basis whatsoever for this criminal investigation,” Bell said in a video press conference. “There is no description of criminal conduct of any kind that has been communicated to Fifa. There is something a little grotesque and unfair in all this because we are 100% confident there will never be a criminal charge against the Fifa president.”
The investigation was opened after “some anonymous complaints” over the meetings were made in Berne, Bell added, suggesting they were from Infantino’s rivals.
Describing Fifa as “an organised kleptocracy” during Blatter’s time, Bell said the serious allegations of wrongdoing during that period should be a “matter of prioritisation” for the Swiss authorities.
While there have been more than 40 convictions in the US of former senior executives in football- and Fifa-related prosecutions, there have so far been no charges in Switzerland. Blatter himself remains under an investigation, although parts of it were dropped in April, and he has consistently denied wrongdoing.
Fifa’s ethics committee has not said whether it intends to suspend or take any action against Infantino while the criminal investigation is ongoing.