When Gianni Infantino took the helm at FIFA, he promised to rescue football’s global governing body from the crisis in which it found itself. Yet thousands of internal memos suggest he is just the latest in a line of despots bending the global organization to their will. By DER SPIEGEL Staff
Get yourself to Brig! If you want to hear something good about Gianni Infantino — only good, that is, or anything good at all — go to Valais. To the Swiss mountains, to Brig, the small town where he grew up before becoming the big man he is today. The most powerful person in world football.
To get there from Zurich, you snake your way through the switchbacks of the Furka Pass. You first see the signpost pointing toward Brig once you’re over the top of the pass, even though you’re still more than 50 kilometers away. There’s not really much to put a sign up for here, anyway. Once in Brig, you’ll go past the Imboden Bakery, where owner Philibert Imboden invented a “Gianni” bread — with olives and tomatoes in rye dough — when Infantino was elected FIFA president. Then past the Geschina sports field, where last year, some 4,500 spectators crammed themselves in right up to the touchlines to watch a legends match. Even Maradona was there for the match, held in honor of the FIFA president. Maradona! In Brig! For their Gianni!
At last you come to Rinaldo Arnold, the other president of Brig — the president of FC Brig-Glis, the sixth-division club Infantino once played for. He was pretty bad. He had neither technique nor stamina as the No. 10, the supposed playmaker. “Gianni often came on as a substitute and often got substituted.” But that really is the only bad thing you’ll squeeze out of Arnold about his friend Gianni.
Maybe that’s why Infantino comes back to Brig so often. He can go into the dressing room and see his guys from the FC, urge them on, tell them they can win the game, ask if anyone has a beer and a hot dog for him. And out on the streets he’ll talk to anyone who wants to talk to him, Arnold recounts.
“He’s a totally different man here from the one he is in Zurich,” says Arnold. Zurich, FIFA headquarters, where they gripe behind Infantino’s back that he doesn’t say hello and looks through people as if they don’t exist. Zurich, where they say he skips staff meetings and acts as though his underlings are a necessary evil. Or just evil.
The Zurich Gianni Infantino also had a Mercedes S-Class 500, an Audi Q7 and a Hyundai SUV at his disposal. The travel department complains that the president, who humbly shares in interviews his line, “I normally fly commercial,” often asks for private jets at a moment’s notice. In December 2017 alone, there were five charter flights — Zurich to Kuwait for 47,000 euros and Geneva to Dubai via Riyadh for 58,000 euros. In Infantino’s opinion, there is always a good reason for it.
But in addition to the Zurich incarnation of Gianni Infantino, the terror at FIFA headquarters, a description he dismisses as petty “office gossip,” there’s also the international iteration, the worst of all — the autocrat FIFA latched onto during its biggest ever crisis, the man who promised he would do everything differently and make everything better. No more backroom deals like in the era of eternal president Sepp Blatter. No incongruities when awarding World Cups. No buttering up corrupt federation heads with FIFA money so they’ll re-elect the president next time around. That was the hope Infantino brought with him into office, but for some time, it has been all too plain to see that the international Infantino doesn’t want to change FIFA. He wants to bend it to his will. He’s a power player of the purest sort.
If Infantino has to decide whether something is good for him and his power, or good for FIFA and its reputation, he’ll opt for power and hazard the consequences of the damage it might do to FIFA. That is according to someone who has known Infantino long enough to be so scared of him to say: “Don’t quote me by name.” Infantino only sees things in black and white: “You’re either his friend or his enemy.” Anyone who doesn’t unconditionally do as he says has to go. One person to fall prey to such a purge, Hans-Joachim Eckert, the German who formerly served as chairman of the Adjudicatory Chamber of the FIFA Ethics Committee, says: “Transparency under Infantino? You can forget about it. Infantino wants to get re-elected.”
The international Infantino is now coming to light in the Football Leaks papers. There are thousands of FIFA documents: emails, Messenger texts, minutes of meetings and reports, all of which DER SPIEGEL has analyzed together with the European Investigative Collaboration (EIC) network of journalists, the Swiss Tages-Anzeiger newspaper, the German public broadcaster Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR) and Reuters. They reveal a reformer who turned out to be a reactionary almost immediately upon getting elected, an innovator whose only real innovation has been to swap the name Blatter for Infantino.
The papers show how Infantino influenced the new FIFA Code of Ethics and unilaterally proposed corrections that weakened the regulations in several points. They reveal how he pulled the strings behind an obscene $25-billion deal even though the president was no longer supposed to have anything to do with the operational business under FIFA’s statutes. And how he aggressively tried to push it through, despite many unanswered questions about the deal.
But the documents that could prove most perilous to him are those from when he was still UEFA’s general secretary. They reveal how Infantino cut secret deals with Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain in 2014. In doing so, he undermined the Financial Fair Play regulations, the set of rules adopted by UEFA in part to prevent the two clubs, both of which are owned by wealthy sheikhs from the Gulf, from buying up stars with the billions of euros supplied by their owners, making it impossible for other teams to compete. In public, Infantino always insisted on sticking to the rules, as though he were a kind of saint taking on the financial doping administered by the evil fat cats. But now the full hypocrisy has been exposed.
To the outside world, Infantino has always given the impression of only wanting what was best for football and never what was best for himself. The papers, together with interviews with a dozen experts and FIFA insiders, suggest another mindset typical of an autocrat, according to which what’s best for him must always be best for everybody else, too.
Again, if you want to hear something positive about Gianni Infantino, you should stay in Brig and not read any further. The same applies to his friend Rinaldo Arnold, who also crops up in the papers. We’ll get back to him a bit later.
Looking to the Future, Returning to the Past
On Feb. 26, 2016, at Zurich’s Hallenstadion arena, FIFA elected a strange savior as its president , a second-choice candidate who presented himself as a savior. His predecessor, Sepp Blatter was the face of the old, corrupt FIFA. By summer 2015 at the latest, it was clear that he was finished and investigators were about to bring the whole federation down with him. They had raided FIFA headquarters and arrested six football functionaries at the Baur au Lac luxury hotel. Pictures of one being led away behind a raised bed-sheet went around the world. FIFA today describes it as “probably the biggest ever corruption scandal in international sport.” The global football body even faced the prospect of being classified as a mafia organization in the United States.
If FIFA was to survive, it would need a new beginning — or at least something that looked like one.
The right man for the job was meant to be Michel Platini, the head of the European UEFA confederation, but when it came to light that the Frenchman had received millions from Blatter, he too fell and attention turned to the man who, until then, had stood behind Platini and always in his shadow — Gianni Infantino. As UEFA general secretary, he had been a successful and powerful technocrat.
His election campaign was just as polished. Infantino campaigned with huge promises — greater morality and more money, as if the two hadn’t come into conflict in FIFA’s past. He made a solemn pledge: “It is now time to turn this around and I believe that, as a man of integrity … I am the right person to do this. I am leading by example.”
But he was wise enough to also give officials from over 200 associations the drug they had gotten used to for their well-being and goodwill: money, and lots of it. Over the next four years, FIFA would distribute half of its income to them. Some $5 million to every national association and $40 million to each of the six continental confederations. “It’s your money, not the money of the FIFA president,” he proclaimed to the electoral delegates. Many of them came from countries where, if experience is anything to go by, they took the “your” part of your money a little too literally.
Infantino called this showering of money — some 1.4 billion in total — “Forward.” “The Forward program is his prestige project,” the “mirror of the president’s leadership for many, many Member Associations.” That’s the description provided by Kjetil Siem in a confidential report on the state of FIFA he prepared for Infantino in February 2018. Siem, a Norwegian, is the chief strategist at FIFA headquarters.
And how are things going with Forward? According to the 2017 FIFA financial report, the Forward program was officially going smoothly, and everything was “on time and under control.” In fact, however, Forward never really got up and running. This is revealed in an email Infantino sent in July 2017 after meeting with his closest associates. “Everyone agrees that the payment of the Forward funds is a top priority and that so far it was … an absolute failure,” he wrote. Infantino sent the mail to Fatma Samoura, FIFA’s secretary general, and heaped pressure on her. She had to either come up with a “practicable and pragmatic solution” for how the promised money could reach the associations as quickly as possible or he would take “other measures” himself. Was this a threat? Everything had to be by the book, of course.
And that was precisely the problem. The FIFA administration had had the temerity to check whether the money had actually arrived where it was meant to go and not gone into the pockets of corrupt officials, as had happened so often before. That took some time. Furthermore, as of December 2017, 35 countries were on a secret FIFA list for not having complied with the rules and were therefore not authorized to access their Forward money at all or were only eligible for part of it. A month later, the number of countries on the list had grown to 38. The pressure on Infantino was growing, too.
The national associations were “ever more frustrated, and they increasingly complain about … endless questions … and long delays,” the FIFA department responsible for the program warned in one email. Where was the dough?
Secretary General Samoura toed the line. “Noted. We will see to it that the payments are expedited,” she vowed to Infantino after receiving his orders. There is plenty to suggest that since then, FIFA has sped up the payments, but has grown more unscrupulous. According to one internal FIFA memo, $8.5 million flowed irregularly to associations in the form of advance payments.
A former FIFA employee familiar with the body’s accounting procedures says, “Distribution of Forward millions currently is FIFA’s biggest weakness and its biggest risk. Nobody can know for sure whether large sums of money flow into criminal activities or are misused.” Siem, Infantino’s Norwegian chief strategist, expressed a similar view in his secret report at the end of February: “Instead of paying based on expenses and projects, the payment is done in advance.” He wrote that it was only after the fact that auditors checked to ensure things had been done properly or if money had disappeared. “The risk for damage is worrying,” Siem continued, before writing about “reputational risks for the program and FIFA.”
When contacted by DER SPIEGEL for a statement, FIFA did not want to leave these sentences from the organization’s own chief strategist unaddressed. While it may have been true earlier that “funds were often disbursed without control and for purely political reasons” under Blatter, “this is not possible anymore” because funds are now disseminated “in accordance” with the rules. Furthermore, FIFA says it has never been as thorough as it is today when it comes to following up on the money trail. Infantino himself recently announced that controls will be even stricter in the future. At the same time, he also once again promised the associations millions more from the Forward program. Money is good, but getting more money from Infantino is even better.
The Forward case is indicative of a pattern in the way Infantino runs FIFA — one that crops up again and again in the Football Leaks documents. In order to get elected, he had to promise a new FIFA and a moral impetus that would permeate the world governing body through his leadership. But since taking the helm, he’s had his eyes set on his re-election in June 2019. Money is useful for keeping voters hooked, whereas the new ethics offensive is more of a burden. And in Infantino’s world, sources of disturbance are to be eliminated. Inconspicuously, but unyieldingly.
“Infantino just wants peace within the world governing body to increase his chances of getting re-elected. Everything else is secondary,” says Eckert, the dismissed German chairman of the Adjudicatory Chamber. He experienced all that up close — as a victim.
That day in Zurich, which ended with Infantino’s election, started with the most far-reaching reform in FIFA’s history. But those very reforms presented the new president with a problem. The controllers slated to clean up the mess at FIFA and weed out corruption were not from the football family, a fact that was to allow them to be fully independent. Of Infantino, too.
At the forefront was the Ethics Committee, with its two organs: the Investigatory Chamber, led by Swiss lawyer Cornel Borbély, and the Adjudicatory Chamber, chaired by Judge Eckert. Although the performance of the two may not have been all that impressive at the beginning, as FIFA today asserts vituperatively, they had gained reputations by the end of the Blatter era of being fearlessness. They would go on to sanction some of the greats of international football, including German legend Franz Beckenbauer, Platini and, ultimately, even Blatter himself.
Infantino had not yet been in his post for 100 days when the FIFA General Assembly gave him a gift in the form of a decree that turned hitherto untouchable internal controllers into potential targets. The FIFA Council, a 37-person committee whose predecessors had decided who would host World Cup tournaments — in some cases in a not entirely aboveboard manner — was given the right for one year to fire any of the controllers.
In May 2017, time ran out for Borbély and Eckert. They were sitting on a jet on their way to the latest FIFA Congress in Bahrain at the time. When they landed, they both received a text message stating that they were no longer needed. Borbély had just launched proceedings directly against Infantino relating to possibly improper practices, which the FIFA president denied. “We were stopped because we ran investigations independently, also against Mr. Infantino personally,” Eckert explains today.
Borbély was replaced as chief investigator by María Claudia Rojas, a Colombian who has experience as an administrative judge, but not as an investigator. One of her first acts was to clear Infantino before she had even read the investigation file compiled by her predecessor Borbély in its entirety. No, she informed the press, there were no proceedings against the president. Rojas has been seen ever since as a prime example of a power politics on Infantino’s part in which he places people who are grateful, beholden and, therefore, innocuous to him in positions of authority. The Football Leaks papers also uncover fresh revelations about Rojas.
Her name crops up in an email dating April 6, 2017, just five weeks before the congress in Bahrain. Ramón Jesurún, the president of the Colombian Football Federation, sent the mail to CONMEBOL, the South American football governing body. They wanted to field candidates in the FIFA elections. But why Ms. Rojas? She is a “deluxe candidate,” wrote Jesurún, “crazy about football” and — yes, he really did cite this as a qualification — a “súper amiga,” a super friend of his.
At home, the Colombian federation is viewed as being notoriously corrupt. Even President Jesurún has been investigated for a ticketing scandal. So, who could possibly be a better chief FIFA investigator than a woman he trusted? Jesurún did not answer a request for a statement, although FIFA did, claiming that Jesurún only suggested the judge because of her capabilities and her reputation. Of course, there was no mention of that in his mail at the time.
As it turned out, Rojas wasn’t just a “súper amiga” of Jesurún’s, but also of his predecessor Luis Bedoya’s, who was banned from football for life for racketeering in 2016. While still a judge in Colombia, Rojas had even recused herself from the case against Bedoya on the grounds of bias due to her “friendly relationship” with him, although she would later deny this.
None of that stopped Alejandro Domínguez, head of the South American confederation, from putting Rojas forward as a candidate. Given that the South American power broker is seen as Infantino’s main backer in world football, it’s not surprising that a functionary with Domínguez’s blessing was obviously to Infantino’s liking.
Only five weeks after the “súper amiga” email from Colombia, Borbély was history and Rojas became the freshly elected chief investigator. Infantino welcomed the new recruit by saying how wonderful it was to have a candidate from outside Europe and a female one at that. There was almost no resistance from within the FIFA Council, of which Reinhard Grindel, the president of the German Football Association, is also a member. And there was none at all from the General Assembly that voted Rojas in. And what of the fact that the normal deadlines for announcing such a candidacy under FIFA’s statutes were ignored to push Rojas through? It didn’t matter. Nor did it matter that Rojas remained silent about her friendship with Bedoya, who had been banned for life, in a mandatory disclosure statement. A mere trifle inside Infantino’s new FIFA. The boss demonstrated once again what mattered most: Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
“How GI (eds: Gianni Infantino) broke down the independence of the Ethics Committee is dramatic,” says one high-ranking FIFA insider. “That should have led to an investigation against him.” But who would lead such an investigation? Rojas? The papers also show that since her appointment to the job, she has performed her role in a manner that best suits Infantino, which is to say, barely at all.
“Since Rojas took office,” the insider says. “The quality of the investigations has clearly decreased.” The Football Leaks papers include a few proceedings in which Rojas merely signed off on recommendations from FIFA’s people at the Ethics Commission administration in Zurich from afar with just a line or two. “Muchas gracias. Cordial saludo.” Her own contribution was negligible.
Furthermore, FIFA’s chief investigator doesn’t speak English and only a little French, but not enough for the finer points of law. In Zurich, the organization confirms that she only works a “few days” a month. This prompted Anne Brasseur, a politician from Luxembourg, to write in a report for the Council of Europe that Rojas was highly dependent on being spoon-fed from headquarters in Switzerland.
There, one man pulls the strings — the Italian Mario Gallavotti, who heads not only the administration of both ethics bodies but also that of the Audit and Compliance Committee. “Gallavotti is Infantino’s man,” says a second FIFA insider. “The Ethics Commission is dead.”
But Rojas did express her opinion clearly on at least one occasion, after a tip reached FIFA on Feb. 17, 2018. A journalist was accusing CONMEBOL President Domínguez of exerting pressure on the leader of Paraguay. The person who tipped FIFA off called for an investigation into Domínguez, the very man who had finagled the position at FIFA for Rojas.
Five days later, an email followed from Rojas. She wrote that she saw no immediate need to launch a preliminary investigation, but that they should discuss the matter further. No, do not write a memorandum — just talk, for now. It’s at that point that the emails in the Football Leaks data run dry. FIFA states it has no evidence that Domínguez had anything to do with the former leader in the matter. Domínguez, for his part, did not answer a request for a response.
Perhaps the time has come for Rojas herself to be the subject of an investigation. During the World Cup in Russia, she spent weeks at the same five-star hotel where members of the FIFA Council were being pampered, officials whom Rojas should technically have been monitoring. What she was doing there professionally remains a mystery to FIFA’s critics. “I don’t see what the justification would have been for me to spend the whole World Cup in a FIFA hotel,” gripes former chairman Eckert. Rojas was said to have passed through the lobby wearing a Colombian kit like a groupie on several occasions. Her son and daughter also stayed for a week each at the Lotte, one of Moscow’s most expensive hotels, during the World Cup, the most expensive time of the year. Who paid for the children? Rojas claims that she paid for it herself, that everything came out of her own pockets. FIFA itself did not comment on the matter.
The organization is already having a tough enough time explaining its president’s recent spending in Moscow. Infantino invited all the association heads to the World Cup final, with FIFA covering all the costs for their business-class flights and five-star hotels. Nearly 200 came. For Infantino, it was money well spent. These are the same chairmen he would like to see re-elect him in June 2019. But what seems like a clear case of impropriety is, for FIFA, “entirely appropriate” and “all done in accordance to the applicable rules.” Those rules, after all, state that Infantino is allowed to invite an appropriate number of guests. But Infantino appears to have been given free rein in determining the amount that is appropriate. And why should Infantino have anything to fear from a chief investigator who lived the sweet life in Russia for several weeks herself, just like the officials?
For Infantino, having an investigator who either could not or did not want to investigate, apparently didn’t go far enough. First, he defanged the staff. Then he defanged the rules: the FIFA Code of Ethics. Only recently, mention of the word “corruption” disappeared from the English version of the text and there’s now a 10-year statute of limitations on bribery charges after which allegations can no longer be investigated. Public revelations about the changes sparked widespread disgust. FIFA gave immediate reassurance that it was supposedly just a misunderstanding. But was it? It has now emerged that Infantino himself played a role, himself penning proposed corrections to the Code of Ethics — some of which found their way into the current version.
FIFA officially claimed that it was only the Ethics Committee and officials from the continental confederations that proposed amendments — and that the president had nothing to do with it. But an email dated Dec. 21, 2017, from Vassilios Skouris, the Greek man who replaced Eckert as chairman of the Adjudicatory Chamber, suggests otherwise. “Dear Gianni, as I promised, I am sending you the draft of code elaborated by Mrs. Rojas and me.” They wanted to finalize the amended version by Jan. 17. “If you have remarks, I would ask you to send them a couple of days before, so I can incorporate them in the final text.”
Infantino had a lot of comments. What Skouris and Rojas had come up with was “really excellent … but, as a ‘good ol’ lawyer,’ I can’t read a regulation without commenting or making suggestions,” he wrote, adding that he hoped they would be useful in finalizing the text. He noted that they could still talk them over in due course.
One of the points Infantino found fault with was that too many preliminary investigations were being conducted against officials for his taste. “This provision has also been ‘misused’ in the past, especially mediatically (sic).” Infantino had himself attracted media attention with a preliminary investigation after flying to meet the pope in an oligarch’s jet. “It should be clear that even a preliminary investigation can only be done on instruction of the chairperson of the Investigatory Chamber,” Infantino wrote.
But the chairperson in question is none other than Rojas, the malleable Colombian. That passage is now part of the Code of Ethics, just as Infantino wanted, meaning there can be no preliminary investigations without permission from Rojas.
And another point: FIFA had thus far been allowed to claim jurisdiction over investigations at any time if national associations don’t do anything about violations. “This article should be further discussed,” Infantino commented. “FIFA is not the ‘world police’ with a duty to investigate and sanction anything that happens anywhere in the world.” The FIFA code now includes a three-month waiting period. FIFA is only entitled to assume control after that — if it wants to. FIFA is also playing down Infantino’s role, saying it is “fully implausible” that head judge Skouris, who served for 12 years as the president of the European Court of Justice, would allow himself to be pressured into make a ruling against his will.
On the other hand, his dismissed predecessor Eckert finally sees confirmation of what he had long suspected. “I have always said that the new Code of Ethics is Infantino’s work and here’s the proof,” Eckert exclaims angrily when DER SPIEGEL shows him Infantino’s list of corrections. Whatever you may think of Blatter, he says, the former president would never have gone as far as trying to influence ethics guidelines or meddling in the affairs of the Ethics Committee. What Infantino has done is “a clear violation of the FIFA code and statutes.”
I Am FIFA
Infantino defanged the Ethics Committee, as well as the second challenge the reformers had imposed upon him on the morning of his election. The role of the president was to change — focusing broadly on the future, handing over trophies, waving from the stands, giving clever speeches and showing the clean face that FIFA needed. A cuddly president.
But he was to keep out of day-to-day business. From now on, real power would rest in the hands of the secretary general. The woman who took on that role, Fatma Samoura, actually dared to assert in an interview, “I am No. 1 at FIFA and wield greater influence than him.”
It became immediately clear how little she knew about football, FIFA and Infantino. As with the new chief investigator Rojas, Samoura is a typical Infantino appointee — a woman from Africa, an unassailable choice. But not unassailable for Infantino. She had come from the United Nations, knew almost nothing about football and had no allies at FIFA headquarters. She wanted the job and it would appear that Infantino wanted her to have it too — so that he could do it himself.
Infantino does the talking at press conferences while Samoura sits next to him and hardly says a word, either because she doesn’t know what she should say, or because she now knows it’s better not to say anything. The president is known to be highly irritable, especially when it looks like somebody else in the organization has any kind of clout.
FIFA chief strategist Kjetil Siem was merciless in his treatment of Samoura in a secret management report he wrote for the president in February. Siem believes she was absolutely the wrong choice. “Trust in GS (eds: the secretary general) has dropped dramatically.” And “amongst female staff that was celebrating her arrival, there is not much believe (sic) left. The lack of understanding and knowledge of the football industry, the partly chaotic, emotional ad hoc and micromanagement leading style has demotivated people.” Her “own staff … is no longer managing to keep their frustration by themselves.”
The fact that FIFA can make any progress at all is “despite” Samoura rather “than because” of her, the report adds. Furthermore, the president deserves “an innovative, modern, knowledgeable, experienced and professional general secretary” — all things that Samoura clearly is not. As such: “Now we have a situation where several vice presidents, council members, confederations and Member Associations are not happy and are … complaining about the FIFA admin leadership amongst each other. The arrows are moving towards the president. Why is he allowing this to continue?”
If everything Siem says is true (and not just Siem’s “personal,” “unfair” view, as FIFA now claims), then Infantino should have fired his secretary general long ago. But Infantino continues to keep Samoura around — and assumes responsibility for day-to-day business himself. The important decisions, the million-dollar deals, he handles all of that and she lets him do it, just as he clearly appears to have wanted, regardless what the reformers had decided two-and-a-half years earlier.
A project code-named “Trophy” now demonstrates how he, and he alone, is in charge at FIFA. The plan is to bring the unimaginable sum of $25 billion into FIFA’s coffers by 2033. Infantino is trying to use his might to push the deal through at FIFA — one intended to make all those people happy who paid greater attention to the word “money” than they did to the word “morality” during his election speech. The president needs happy association heads, because Election Day isn’t far off. It’s still the same old game, just as it was under Blatter. Provide and rule.
In December 2017, Infantino flew to Abu Dhabi, where European champions Real Madrid were playing against champions from other continents. They call it the FIFA Club World Cup, but it was one of those artificial competitions we could basically all do without. Who really wants to see the Real superstars playing against Al Jazira of Abu Dhabi? The three guys on Infantino’s guest list probably didn’t want to either. They were with Centricus, an investment firm located in the tax haven of Jersey seemingly capable of spinning straw into gold. Shortly after that meeting with the Centricus managers, their host Infantino suddenly made football bodies around the globe one those offers that, at first glance, you just can’t refuse: $25 billion for the associations’ coffers.
As astounding as that offer was, it remained just as opaque. Infantino was very secretive about where the money was coming from. He didn’t reveal any names, only that they were “private investors,” “among the world’s most solid investors” and that they were not sovereign funds. Otherwise, much of the information he provided remained nebulous. “He only told half the story,” says one insider.
The Football Leak data now casts more light on the mega-deal. Centricus sent a first draft proposal on Dec. 19, 2017, shortly after the visit to Abu Dhabi. The professional investors wanted to market a Club World Cup, a tournament like the one they had just seen, but scaled up to 24 teams and with the world’s most famous clubs. The idea promised to generate billions in new revenues for the football industry. Although that isn’t wrong in and of itself, a few things felt off in what unfolded next.
Starting with the fact that Infantino had decided to move forward with Centricus, the company that had offered its services in secret talks. The FIFA president apparently didn’t see any need to put the project out for tender, instead considering that to be superfluous. After a few weeks, Centricus even wanted to secure investors for two tournament series. Not just for the Club World Cup, but also for a “Nations Cup.” Every two years, the best national teams in a league would compete for the championship. Soon, the Japanese technology company Softbank also joined them at a secret meeting at Paris’ Le Bourget airport.
Both tournaments were to be brought under one roof, a joint venture by FIFA and the investors. But one proposal also abruptly reveals that even more was to be included: FIFA video game rights, FIFA TV and the complete image archive with “tournaments, special moments, interviews and inside stories.” They wanted to “warehouse” all that in the holding company and manage it from there.
What “warehouse” actually meant remained vague. Would the deal entail FIFA hawking its whole image archive? Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal against England in 1986? Plus all the digital rights? An open question.
And where would the company have its headquarters? “A tax-transparent Swiss SPV (eds: special purpose vehicle) such as a Swiss LP (eds: limited partnership) would … not be a suitable investment vehicle.” There are “a number of suitable jurisdictions … (in particular no or low profit taxation),” states a March draft memorandum to the global football body. But, it warned, these might come with “reputational risk for FIFA.”
The normal thing for FIFA to have done would have been to hire an external consulting firm. That company would have determined what the governing body could charge for the new tournaments and the digital package. And also, of course, the inherent risks in a deal. But in-depth studies take time to complete. Infantino thought he could do without the fuss. That’s how half-baked plans could emerge from vague proposals after only four months. Yet Infantino still went ahead and presented this to the FIFA Council in March. Time was of the essence, Infantino claimed, because they only had 60 days to accept the offer. But even the Council wasn’t willing to go along with this one, and Infantino placed the issue on the backburner until after the World Cup in Russia. The fact that the decision would result in the 60-day deadline not being met suddenly no longer seemed to be a problem. In May, the line was that the investors had given them more time. Infantino used that time in an effort to dispel the worries of the officials in a letter in which he wrote that FIFA would retain control over both tournaments and that it would always have the final say within the joint venture.
But the Council was also resistant at a meeting in Kigali at the end of October. It decided only to set up a task force, a working group, that was to tinker with the plans until March. And Infantino had to admit that FIFA could have done things better, as he said. Meanwhile, FIFA had commissioned consultants from J.P. Morgan to complete a market study. At first, it appeared to be a major setback for Infantino, his greatest since taking office. For once, things didn’t go as he had planned.
But perhaps it just seemed that way — after all, Infantino wouldn’t be Infantino if he didn’t keep pushing forward, even when he has already gone too far. It’s still too early to tell whether he lost ground in Kigali or if he instead bought more time to push “Trophy” through. In any case, Secretary General Samoura won’t be heading the task force. It’s Infantino, nobody else.
We could go on and on, rummaging through Infantino’s decisions and character. We might even uncover more truths about the coldness of power: “Some members of staff,” a FIFA employee reveals, “received an email telling us we should address the president formally. Some had been on first-name terms with him for years.” Or about autocratic impulses. “Infantino wants yes-men, and that’s exactly the kind of people who surround him today,” says a FIFA insider. Or about his tactical relationship with the truth. “He is extremely convincing in a personal conversation. You believe everything he says, until you see the opposite on paper in front of you.”
But maybe at this point in the story, we’ve spent too much time looking for the real Infantino in the big wide world, in Zurich, Germany, Russia, Colombia. Maybe we’ve stuck too close to the world governing body version of Gianni Infantino.
It’s time to catch our breath and go to Brig. The air in Brig is outstanding after all.
Rinaldo Arnold, the president of FC Brig-Glis, is sitting in the clubhouse. There are Coca-Cola bar tables outside and cheap steel chairs inside. The flat roof rests on bare wooden beams to which veteran players have nailed their old shoes.
No one here plays for money. They play for the love of the game. This, says Arnold, is the place Gianni has always felt the most comfortable. “Gianni wants to promote football. It’s not about him. He doesn’t make decisions with a view to improving his own situation. He makes decisions to make football better.”
So, is it all just one big misunderstanding? Is Infantino a president who does whatever he can for football? Maybe not the best president, but the best president possible in a world where football has long since become the plaything of politicians, billionaires and the heads of large corporations? Or is Infantino just a football romantic who has simply understood that in the brutal wrangling surrounding the greatest sport on Earth, only a pragmatist with an instinct for power can defend the game?
Should we have spent more time in Brig in our search for the real Infantino?
As it turns out, even tiny Brig is no longer that one spot in the Gianni Infantino empire where he preserved the innocence of the game. On May 25, 2016, close friend Rinaldo Arnold wrote to Infantino: “I want to thank you again for inviting me to Mexico. It was exciting and interesting. And thank you for the tickets to the Champions League Final too. My younger son will go with my wife as I have to attend an event at the FC (Eds: Brig-Glis).”
The email shows that Arnold was invited to the FIFA Congress in Mexico and to the Champions League final in Milan, both of which were held in May 2016. A trip to the Club World Cup in Japan in 2015 is also referenced. He also attended the Spain-Russia match at the World Cup this summer. He proudly posted a picture of himself and the King of Spain, Felipe VI, on his Facebook page. The photograph was taken in the VIP-area you can’t buy tickets for. You can only be invited.
So, who paid for Arnold’s junkets around the football world and how much did such exclusive trips cost? Arnold did not comment on the matter, and FIFA left most of the questions unanswered: “Mr. Arnold, who is a personal acquaintance of the President, was invited as his guest.” How often and to what games? No answer.
That would be difficult enough to explain even if Arnold were just a good buddy to whom Infantino wanted to give a freebie from FIFA. But Arnold is a senior chief prosecutor and the head of the investigative authority in Upper Valais. A public servant who has to be careful about what he accepts and who, above all, must avoid creating the impression that he might, in the light of such gifts, reciprocate.
In the spring of 2016, this line appears to have blurred. On March 22, Infantino met Swiss Attorney General Michael Lauber at a hotel in Bern. Lauber was heading the corruption investigation into FIFA at the time and Infantino, who had just taken office, wanted to speak to him. FIFA’s wishes had been passed along by senior chief prosecutor Arnold, of course. He even sat at the table during the meeting, on Infantino’s side.
Not long after, there was a raid on UEFA. Swiss investigators were chasing a suspicious television deal dating back to when Infantino still worked for the European association. Infantino’s name was included in a contract, even though he apparently had nothing to do with the negotiations. It was time for Arnold to swoop in and douse the flames once more.
A few days after the raid, he gave his friend Gianni a press release from the attorney general. It had been given to him by the attorney general’s spokesperson, André Marty. In an email, Arnold wrote to his buddy Gianni, “So, it’s clear that proceedings have been launched against an Unknown Person, but definitely not against you.” Arnold also offered assistance: “André also told me that there’ll be a meeting between the attorney general and FIFA. … Is that true? If so … the further course of action should be discussed right there. Even if we/you have to bring criminal proceedings against an Unknown Person for defamation.”
Another email followed five hours later: “Hello Gianni. If you want, I can try to get the attorney general to put out a press release saying that there are no ongoing legal proceedings against you.” And two days after that: “The important thing now is the meeting in two weeks. I can come with you again if you want.”
That sounds like a Swiss public prosecutor being a bit too willing to be of assistance in a professional capacity. Arnold counters that assessment, arguing it was a “purely private contact with Mr Infantino” and that none of it had anything to do with his job as an investigator. The Valais public prosecutor’s office also sees nothing wrong in this. As for the suspected gifts — the tickets and trips that Arnold says nothing about when asked? The Swiss seem to have their own special ways of doing things in this regard, too. In Germany, this would be cause for an investigation on suspicion of accepting benefits. According to the government agency with overarching authority for public prosecutors in Switzerland, there are no legal rules as to what a prosecutor can accept.
Perhaps the “Ciao Capo” (“hello boss”) with which Arnold addresses his idol Infantino in one email is also just a custom among Swiss chief prosecutors. Capo is what mafia bosses are called. There are many who will now attest that FIFA under Infantino is still a Mafia, a “MaFIFA,” if you will. But only beyond the city limits of Brig.