Major earthquakes tend to remake landscapes. So do volcanic eruptions. And catastrophic floods. The shocks end; the lava hardens; the waters recede. But what’s left behind is changed. And something stronger is usually built atop the old ruins.
The old FIFA was swept away in a monsoon of raids, indictments and arrests in 2015 and early 2016. And of those few administrators who weren’t caught up in that, many more were forced to resign or banned for life by the feeble ethics arm of the governing body, their actions too egregious to evade internal punishment. Even longtime president Sepp Blatter and his right-hand man Jerome Valcke, the secretary general, were eventually deposed.
Little remains of FIFA’s former leadership. In just the last few years, it has elected or appointed a new president, a new secretary general and three new vice presidents – out of six – and a small army of new members in the FIFA Council, which replaced the craven old Executive Committee.
Yet somehow FIFA remains more or less unchanged. Gianni Infantino is in charge now. The Swiss underdog UEFA secretary general upset Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa in the presidential election in February of last year, when U.S. Soccer president and FIFA Council member Sunil Gulati swung the decisive voting block toward him.
Upon his election, Infantino made grand pronouncements and promises of cleaning up the game’s rotten core. Yet on his first days in the job, he also began a habit he has yet to kick: flying in famous retired players to come play a pickup game with him. It felt odd then and it feels stranger now, this insatiable need to rub elbows with the game’s stars of yore.
Meanwhile, the Great Reformer has reformed nothing. There was a process underway seeking to create accountability and transparency. But Infantino, if anything, has rolled it back.
Last month, the head of FIFA’s Audit and Compliance Committee, Domenico Scala, resigned in protest of the removal of checks and balances put in place after the American Department of Justice indictments a year earlier. At the most recent FIFA Congress in Bahrain, Infantino then made a move to dump the heads of the internal investigatory and adjudicatory mechanisms. Those bodies were put in place specifically to keep FIFA itself in check.
The justification goes that the watchdogs’ terms were up and their proposed replacements certainly seem qualified. But the ousted men, Cornel Borbely and Hans-Joachim Eckert, claim they were working on hundreds of open cases that could now be delayed for years or abandoned altogether.
What’s more, Infantino himself had been investigated – and cleared of wrongdoing – and there was fevered talk that he was now being investigated a second time, although that was never confirmed.
Blatter was famous for his gaffes, tone-deafness and frequent excoriations of the press and their supposedly unfair and spiteful attacks on the “FIFA family.” Infantino, who had initially seemed eminently reasonable and grounded by comparison, launched into a similar rant during his address at the Congress.
“Sadly, the truth is not necessarily what is true, but what people believe,” Infantino railed, according to the Guardian. “There is a lot of fake news and alternative facts about FIFA circulating. FIFA bashing has become a national sport in some countries.”
Infantino then turned on his predecessors, without naming any specifically. “Where were all these self-proclaimed good governance and compliance gurus who were supposed to control FIFA when all this was happening? They all miserably failed,” said Infantino. “It’s not me saying it. It’s the facts saying it. We will not accept any good governance lesson from any of these individuals who have miserably failed in protecting football, protecting FIFA, and in protecting football from FIFA.”
Finally, Infantino made a grandstanding proclamation about rehabilitating the organization’s battered image. “We are rebuilding FIFA’s reputation after all that happened, we have taken over an organization which was at its deepest point,” Infantino said. “If there is anyone who is in the room who thinks he can abuse football and enrich himself – I have one message: leave. Leave football now. We don’t want you.”
Yet that all flies in the face of what has actually happened. Under Infantino, FIFA has become less transparent and less able to police itself. Say what you will of Blatter, and there is much to say, but the reform process had made very significant and real strides in the final months of his watch – whether with or without his support.
But the main talking points of Infantino’s year in charge have been an investigation, and perhaps another; a volume of private jet flights that’s brought more questions; a $369 million operating deficit, with $50 million going to legal fees alone; and just half as many sponsors signed up for the 2018 World Cup in Russia as there were for Brazil in 2014.
There is no evidence that FIFA has changed, let alone changed for the better. Infantino rose to power by taking a page from Blatter’s playbook, which in turn was cribbed from Joao Havelange – his mentor and equally corrupt predecessor. Spread the wealth, build coalition in the bigger confederations and expand tournaments. Infantino has done all that, quickly consolidating power. And then he set about undoing the progress in good governance.
It’s still very early in Infantino’s tenure. The last three FIFA presidents served 17, 24 and 12 years, respectively. But after all that’s happened, after the seismic shocks that rumbled through soccer’s global governing body, it might just be that nothing substantial has changed.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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