Infantino's achievements in office over the past four years have been remarkable. After promising reforms and a new era of transparency and enlightenment for world soccer's governing body, he has actually managed to make us nostalgic for the shifty, cash-in-hand days of his disgraced Swiss compatriot Blatter.
Already, though, justice is closing in on Infantino. Three criminal complaints have been filed against him in a court in Bern, Switzerland. The canton prosecutor has referred the complaints against Swiss Attorney General Michael Lauber and Infantino to Switzerland's federal legislature to have a special federal prosecutor oversee them. FIFA termed the complaints against Infantino “a farce,” but FIFA’s own Ethics Committee might have no choice but to suspend him for 90 days.
There are actually two matters that former FIFA ethics officials point to as needing internal ethics investigations. "Lies have short legs," as the German saying goes, and it fits well to what has gone on.
On April 11, 2017, Infantino and three FIFA co-workers were due to fly back to Europe from an official trip to Suriname in South America, but their KLM flight was delayed by 24 hours for technical reasons, according to a report last month in the German Süddeutsche Zeitung. Infantino's deputy Mattias Grafström, who was on the trip, then asked FIFA's "independent" compliance officer Tomaz Vesel for approval to hire a private jet, saying they had to be back next day for an important meeting. Vesel said that was fine, they just needed to send him details of the supposed meeting once they were back.
The private jet was duly hired and used, costing an estimated six-figure sum - all apparently above board, as even Infantino needs Vesel's approval for expenditure above $100,000. On April 18, Grafström wrote to Vesel that the urgent meeting next day (April 12) had been with UEFA President Aleksander Ceferin in the Swiss town of Nyon, where UEFA is headquartered. The only problem? This meeting did not and could not have happened -- Ceferin was in the Armenian capital Yerevan on April 12, on official business. Yerevan is a four-and-a-half-hour flight from Nyon.
"If it turns out that the meeting never happened, that is an infringement of FIFA's Ethics Code," according to criminal lawyer Hans-Joachim Eckert, and he should know -- he was fired by Infantino from FIFA's Ethics Committee in 2017 for no reason, along with his colleague Cornel Borbely. "It should be ascertained if, from a legal standpoint, he acted with disloyalty to FIFA. That would not only be a transgression of his authority, but a deception of his own organization for personal gain."
In response to the publication of the SZ story, FIFA stated that the return flight complied with “FIFA’s rules and regulations” for the potential use of private jets and that “commercial flights are the preferred choice for the FIFA president, and private jets are only used when circumstances warrant them as was the case in 2017."
Mark Pieth, a Basel-based legal and corruption expert who in 2013 quit in frustration from FIFA's independent governance commission, said, "In my view, FIFA needs to instigate an internal ethics investigation. It should be particularly concerned with the question of suspending Infantino. That will be especially pertinent if the [Swiss] canton of Bern pursues criminal proceedings against Infantino for his illegal meetings with Lauber."
Wait, what is that all about?
Attorney General Lauber, whose Schweizer Bundesanwaltschaft (BA - the Swiss Federal Prosecutor's Office) was supposed to be investigating multiple FIFA misdeeds, is facing dismissal after his office's hopeless handling of the 2006 'Summer Fairy Tale' affair. This investigation aimed to unravel how a mysterious payment in 2002 of 10 million Swiss francs to Germany's 2006 World Cup Organizing Committee honcho Franz Beckenbauer ended up in the account of disgraced FIFA Executive Committee member Mohammed Bin Hammam. That investigation timed out at the end of April due to the BA's negligence, with no one any the wiser.
The BA's other FIFA investigations have been dragging on for years, including its inquiry into Blatter's payment of two million Swiss francs to Michel Platini when he was Infantino's boss at Europe's soccer governing body, UEFA. That information was fed anonymously to the BA in 2015, just when it looked like Platini would succeed Blatter. It ultimately scuppered the careers of both Blatter and Platini, and into the ring for the FIFA job stepped a new and almost unknown candidate -- Gianni Infantino!
Since then, despite the BA investigations into FIFA affairs, Infantino has met the attorney-general Lauber on several occasions, supposedly to discuss procedural matters. These meetings were arranged thanks to the help of Infantino's childhood friend Rinaldo Arnold, senior prosecutor in the Swiss state of Wallis (where he and Infantino grew up). But e-mail evidence published in the Swiss and German media (co-operating with the internet platform Football Leaks) has shown the real reason Infantino wanted to meet the attorney general -- while working at UEFA as its director of legal service he had signed a 2006 contract negotiated by Team Marketing on behalf of UEFA as part of a the tender process with an Argentine company for Champions League TV rights in Ecuador. The owner of the company, Cross Trading, was Hugo Jinkis, who along with his son Mariano Jinkis were indicted in 2015 as part of the U.S. probe into soccer corruption. The contract itself was being looked into by the Swiss BA.
"I'll try to make it clear to the attorney general [Lauber] that it's also in my interest to clear this up as soon as possible," Infantino wrote in an e-mail to Arnold shortly before one 2016 meeting with Lauber, "and that it's clearly announced that I've nothing to do with this [any corruption surrounding the TV contract]."
FIFA’s response to the report of the e-mail in Swiss newspaper Tribune de Geneve to Arnold: “The e-mail referred to in the article was obviously obtained by hacking, which is an illegal and criminal act. Not only Mr. Infantino had no reason to lie in that email, the email never said Mr. Infantino wanted to 'clear his name."
BA investigator Cédric Remund halted that investigation in November 2017. On June 16, 2017, Infantino, Lauber, Arnold and BA spokesperson André Marty held another meeting at the Qatari-owned Schweizerhof Hotel in the Swiss capital Bern, right next door to the Qatari embassy. A fifth person was also at the meeting. Switzerland’s Luzerner Zeitung and SZ, citing sources, suggested that the fifth person was Remund. Why are the contents of this meeting important? Remund’s presence would compromise his investigations into FIFA and potentially make them null and void. It's the reason that Swiss politicians have been calling for Lauber's head, and have already reduced his salary.
If it's conclusively proved that Infantino had a role in the story his assistant concocted to FIFA's compliance officer about the need for a private jet back from Suriname, and that he interfered in the legal process to influence the Swiss Federal Prosecutor's Office's investigations into FIFA, he needs to be fired. This time, the soccer world needs to clear out the entire complacent and corrupt old guard and subject FIFA to a wholesale structural and cultural revolution, with truly independent ethical and financial commissions dogging its every step for decades to come.
At last, the world is changing fast. On the urgent issues of race, sexual inequality and climate, progress is finally kicking in. As short-legged lies continue to stumble, the cash-swamped, greed-driven leagues and institutions of soccer need to be kicked along too.
Further reading: Infantino’s scurrilous plan to sell FIFA down the river