Infantino blames ‘fake news’ for FIFA woes, offers no cases
MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — Gianni Infantino waged a strident defense of his FIFA leadership by lashing out at “fake news” and “alternative facts” circulated about a governing body he insists has recovered its reputation and can be trusted.
Addressing his second congress of soccer nations as FIFA president, Infantino on Thursday invoked the rhetoric favored by U.S. President Donald Trump to take on his critics by also lambasting experts who “miserably failed” and promoting his “football first” agenda.
Infantino later acknowledged he could not support his “fake news” outburst with supporting facts.
He was under pressure at his second congress since replacing Sepp Blatter as world soccer’s leader in February 2016, with questions about the power he is exerting overshadowing the gathering.
FIFA’s top ethics officials — judge Hans-Joachim Eckert and prosecutor Cornel Borbely — were ousted by Infantino this week, and the disgruntled pair accused the president of jeopardizing the reform of the organization. Only pressure from criminal authorities forced FIFA to overhaul its structures to dilute the power of the presidency and show it can be trusted.
But Reinhard Grindel, a member of Infantino’s ruling council, criticized the way FIFA’s ethics and reform leadership was abruptly replaced this week, and said the process should have been “more transparent.”
“This is certainly not how we should make such sensitive decisions in the future,” said Grindel, the German federation president.
The credentials of the people who replaced Eckert and Borbely have not been questioned, but the murky process left a sour taste with some delegates. Former FIFA presidential candidate Prince Ali believes FIFA has “already lost the battle of public opinion.”
The Jordanian federation head also accused Infantino of acting undemocratically when he blocked delegates from having a say on the dispute between the Palestinian and Israeli federations. It will be dealt with in secret by the FIFA Council headed by Infantino.
“You cannot prevent a congress from making a decision that is in their rights,” Prince Ali said, bemoaning the fact FIFA remains “in crisis.”
“You can have a FIFA president who says everything is fine, as we have heard before,” the prince said, “but obviously it is not.”
Infantino, though, blamed troublemakers for distorting coverage of his progress in repairing the scandal-battered organization.
“Sadly, the truth is not what is necessarily true but what people believe is true,” Infantino told the congress.
“There is a lot of fake news and alternative facts about FIFA circulating. FIFA bashing has become a national sport in some countries.”
Asked later by reporters to provide examples of “fake news,” Infantino said: “Generally, it’s my feeling.
“It’s not the media I was meaning. There are a lot of people spreading a lot of wrong and false information.”
For Infantino, there is no doubt “crisis is over,” despite a Kuwaiti member of his council recently abandoning plans to seek re-election after being accused of bribery by American authorities.
“We are rebuilding the credibility of FIFA. The new FIFA is a democracy it is not a dictatorship,” Infantino said. “New FIFA, it is a transparent organization, not an organization that is fiddling around with facts and figures. It is a deeply honest organization.”
FIFA first embarked on a reform mission in 2011 after election bribery allegations, but a deeper financial scandal exploded four years later with raids in Zurich and the arrest of soccer officials.
“Where were all these self-proclaimed good governance and compliance gurus who were supposed to control FIFA when all this was happening?” asked Infantino, whose former bosses at UEFA were often cited by reform advisers as a barrier to progress. “They all miserably failed. 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.”
Expanding on the reform supervisors, Infantino said: “What did they do? They simply rubber-stamped a sick and wrong system. It is not me saying it. It is the criminal courts saying it all over the world.”
FIFA has spent tens of millions of dollars on experts to protect its victim status in criminal investigations and reclaim cash from corrupt officials. Infantino issued a plea to officials still hoping to profit through bribery, embezzlement, and fraud.
“If there’s anyone in this room or outside of this room who still thinks he can enrich himself, that he can abuse football, I have one clear and strong message to tell him: Leave football and leave football now. We don’t want you.”
There was applause, and no sign of anyone leaving the room.
FIFA officials remain under criminal investigation in Switzerland and the United States. FIFA audit committee member Richard Lai, an American citizen from Guam, recently pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy charges related to taking around $1 million in bribes including at least $850,000 from Kuwaiti officials. The case implicated Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah, the executive forced to scrap his council re-election bid.
Rob Harris is at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarris