KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- FIFA president Gianni Infantino has been made the subject of a criminal investigation in Switzerland in connection with issues which have already witnessed the downfall of the country’s attorney-general.
The notification from a special prosecutor is an unwanted distraction for Infantino at a time when FIFA has had to take emergency financial action to offset the worldwide impact of Covid-19. The pandemic has also halted the 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign and vaporised Infantino’s Club World Cup expansion project.
The 50-year-old Swiss lawyer, who was elected to lead FIFA in 2016 then re-elected last year, has denied all suggestions of wrongdoing and intends to sit out the storm.
He has always insisted that FIFA today bears no relation to an organisation which became a byword for corruption after the explosion in 2015 of the FIFAGate scandal which dethroned former president Sepp Blatter.
Problems arose for Infantino after reports emerged of a series of meetings with Swiss Attorney-General Michael Lauber. Infantino has said that such meetings were logical because Lauber’s office was dealing with more than 20 FIFA-linked cases.
However alarm bells began to ring after Lauber was not only unable to recall some of the meetings but was found to have made no official record of them.
Lauber survived a parliamentary vote which threatened his position and subsequently withdrew from involvement in all FIFA-related cases. These include a criminal process against Blatter over a $2m “disloyal payment” to ex-UEFA supremo Michel Platini. Both men have denied wrongdoing.
Last month Switzerland’s judicial supervisory body appointed special prosecutor Stefan Keller to delve into the Lauber/Infantino connection in response to the registration of an initial four formal complaints by person or persons unknown. Further complaints followed.
An AB-BA statement has said that Keller identified “elements that make up reprehensible behaviour,” had opened a case against Infantino and a long-time friend in regional prosecutor Rinaldo Arnold and had sought permission to open a case against Lauber.
A statement said: “[Dr Keller] has reached the conclusion that, in connection with the meetings between Attorney-General Michael Lauber and the FIFA president Gianni Infantino and the Chief Public Prosecutor of the Upper Valais [Rinaldi], there are indications of criminal conduct.
“This concerns abuse of public office, breach of official secrecy, assisting offenders and incitement to these acts.”
FIFA responded with its own statement promising to “cooperate fully with this investigation.”
Infantino, who has previously dismissed the fuss as “absurd”, insisted that all his actions had been, and would continue to be, “fully supportive of the judicial process.”
He said: “People remember well where FIFA was as an institution back in 2015, and how substantial judicial intervention was actually required to help restore the credibility of the organisation.
“As president of FIFA, it has been my aim from day one, and it remains my aim, to assist the authorities with investigating past wrongdoings at FIFA. FIFA officials have met with prosecutors in other jurisdictions across the world for exactly these purposes.
“I remain fully supportive of the judicial process, and FIFA remains willing to fully cooperate with the Swiss authorities for these purposes.”
Ethics panel role
The internal risk for Infantino, newly-elected this year as a member of the International Olympic Committee, is the reaction of the FIFA ethics committee.
In October 2015 the ethics committee imposed a provisional 90-day suspension on Blatter after a criminal investigation was launched over a so-called “disloyal payment” of $2m to the then UEFA president Michel Platini.
Blatter never returned to his office in the massive, modernistic Home of FIFA in Zurich and was subsequently suspended from football for six years. His duties as FIFA president were taken over on an interim basis by the senior vice-president, then Issa Hayatou from Cameroon.
The current senior vice-president of FIFA is Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, the Asian confederation supremo. Sheikh Salman, from Bahrain, was defeated by Infantino in the 2016 presidential election.