World

FIFA Set to Roll Back Reforms Enacted After Corruption Scandal


The 12-page report was intended to save soccer’s governing body, FIFA, in its moment of existential crisis.

Filled with reform proposals and drawn up by more than a dozen soccer insiders in December 2015, the report was FIFA’s best chance to show business partners, U.S. investigators and billions of fans that it could be trusted again after one of the biggest corruption scandals in sports history.

In bullet points and numbered sections, the report championed high-minded ideas like accountability and humility. It also proposed concrete and, for FIFA, revolutionary changes: transparency in how major decisions were reached; term limits for top leaders and new limits on presidential power; and the abolition of well-funded committees widely viewed as a system of institutional graft.

And there on the report’s final page, deep down a list of its authors, was the name of the man positioning himself as FIFA’s savior: Gianni Infantino.

Mr. Infantino, an administrator at European soccer’s governing body, had been enlisted to help sketch out the overhauls. By the time they were announced, he was a candidate for FIFA president. Presenting himself as a clean break from the past, he swept into office a few months later and quickly began enacting many of the changes. The sport’s six regional confederations promised to clean up their acts, too.

Less than a decade later, soccer’s appetite for reform appears to have waned. An outside audit of African soccer’s governing body, commissioned after FIFA took control of the organization, suggested tens of millions of dollars in misappropriated funds. The governing bodies for Europe and for North and Central America have backed away from reforms or ignored promised ones altogether, according to a comparison of public pledges and concrete actions. The Asian soccer confederation will vote this week on scrapping term limits for its senior leadership.

And on Friday in Bangkok, Mr. Infantino and FIFA will ask its members to approve a slate of changes to its statutes that would roll back yet more of the changes he once embraced, and restore structures that he had sought to sweep away.

Critics argue that would move soccer away from sound principles of good governance it adopted amid scandal. “FIFA,” the organization said in response, “does not agree with this sentiment at all.”

FIFA the institution, as well as Mr. Infantino personally, frequently invokes a powerful endorsement of its overhauls whenever questions about corporate probity are raised. While Mr. Infantino rarely grants interviews, FIFA said in response to questions about the undoing of reforms that the changes made since the scandals of 2015 have transformed it “from a toxic institution to a respected, trusted and modern governing body.”

That pivot to model governance, it said, has been “acknowledged by several external organizations, including the United States Department of Justice.”

But American officials said last week that they had never reviewed FIFA’s rules or governance standards, and the prosecutor’s office that brought many of the corruption cases declined to stand behind the federation’s changes.

“Our office has not endorsed the effectiveness of any of FIFA’s current reform efforts,” said John Marzulli, a spokesman for the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York.

FIFA, along with two of its regional confederations, has been granted victim status by the Justice Department, reflecting a conclusion that it had been harmed by its own leaders. That designation could allow it to claw back tens of millions of dollars seized from defendants in the case.

But in a signal of the Justice Department’s reticence to endorse FIFA’s claims of being a changed institution, U.S. officials declined to pay $201 million in restitution funds it has awarded to FIFA or its related federations directly. Instead, they took the unusual step of requiring the creation of a U.S.-based bank account for a special fund that received the proceeds.

At the same time, FIFA has moved to alter statutes revised after the scandal. In the 2015 study, for example, Mr. Infantino and fellow report authors called for a dismantling of a bloated committee system that had for years been one of FIFA’s worst excesses: a program of patronage assignments in which soccer officials from around the world could enjoy luxury air travel, five-star accommodations and hefty annual salaries, all at FIFA’s expense, in return for their loyalty, and their votes.

FIFA had 26 such standing committees at the time. The 2015 report recommended a reduction to nine “to improve efficiency.” Currently, there are only seven.

But as part of the proposed rules changes being considered this week in Bangkok, Mr. Infantino will ask members to approve a fivefold increase, to 35 panels, and also for the power to create new ones — and appoint members — when he sees fit.

FIFA said it needed the extra committees because it had significantly expanded its functions and suggested that the roles would create more positions for women. Some meetings, it said, would be held by teleconference. It did not say how appointees to the committees would be chosen, but there is already interest in the roles.

One sports official, who works for another major sporting body but who has served on FIFA committees in the past, smiled when told about their being restored. He asked not to be named because he still has a relationship with the organization. But he said he hoped to be offered a position since the perks traditionally have included access to prized World Cup tickets.

Region by region, promises of change have already been watered down. The Asian soccer confederation’s vote this week to abolish term limits will allow its president and board members to stay on indefinitely. (The A.F.C. said four of its member associations had requested the change.) An effort by the European soccer’s president to stay beyond his 12-year term limit was approved but rendered meaningless when he said he would not run. (He said he had not planned to extend his term but wanted to test members’ loyalty.) And the North American soccer body, Concacaf, which was nearly brought down by the 2015 corruption scandal, has failed to follow through on promised changes like hiring independent board members. (It did not reply to a request for comment on Tuesday.)

At the same time, the cultures of well-paid sinecures and all-powerful presidents have in some ways been enhanced. Members of FIFA’s top board, known as the Council, earn $250,000 to $350,000 annually for a job that can require attendance at as few as three meetings a year. Mr. Infantino has seen his salary more than double since he took office, to nearly $5 million, and he recently oversaw a term-limits modification — specific to him — that could allow him to stay in his position for 15 years instead of the 12 allotted in FIFA’s statutes.

Miguel Maduro, the first FIFA governance head appointed by Mr. Infantino after his election, blamed the culture of the organization for the slide back to old ways. “It’s not enough to take down a few bad apples,” he said, “if the trees that produced them remain in place.”

Mr. Maduro, who left the governance post in 2017, called the weakening of guard rails “a formalization of the reversal away from the reforms.” He labeled the latest changes “confirmation” of a process informally underway for years.

As Mr. Infantino has cemented his position, he has simultaneously rolled back changes intended to reduce the influence of his office. Under the proposed reforms, the president was to become an “ambassador” for the sport, and greater authority was to be transferred to FIFA’s top administrator, the secretary general — a post that was remade to more resemble that of a chief executive.

Yet for most of Mr. Infantino’s tenure, his handpicked choice for secretary general, Fatma Samoura, was rarely involved in major matters. Instead, the most important decisions were increasingly consolidated into fewer and fewer hands, and controlled by a group known as the bureau.

In meetings held behind closed doors, the bureau’s members — soccer’s six regional presidents and Mr. Infantino — have bartered among themselves for top events. In October, they presented the FIFA Council with a plan that reduced the bidders for the men’s World Cup in 2030 to just one choice, a three-continent offer that will take place in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, as well as in Morocco, Portugal and Spain.

That choice, in limiting the field of bidders for the next World Cup to only those from Asia and Oceania, effectively awarded the 2034 World Cup to Saudi Arabia before bidding had begun. Within 24 hours, it had lined up the backing of both Asia’s soccer confederation and Mr. Infantino.

FIFA’s membership still must vote to confirm the hosts for the 2030 and 2034 events. But with just one candidate bidding for each tournament, and Mr. Infantino’s preferred outcome clear, those votes appear to be a fait accompli.

And with Ms. Samoura having recently departed FIFA, the diminishing of her old job is likely to be formalized in Bangkok, too. According to the new draft statutes, any reference to the secretary general’s serving as FIFA’s chief executive will be deleted. Instead, the post, which previously reported to the council, will now also report directly to the president.





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