RIGHT NOW IN Zurich, FIFA must be re-thinking how to present their carefully laid-out strategy to convince the world that Gianni Infantino has ushered in a ‘new FIFA’.

Infantino intended getting up at next week’s FIFA Congress in Bahrain - let that location stay in your mind as you read this - smiling as ever, pointing to how the ‘FIFA ship’ had been righted.

He handed over a 1,300-page corruption report. Tick.

He implemented the reforms from February last year. Tick.

He rid the new FIFA Council of the last remaining members of the old FIFA Executive that was in place in December 2010. Tick.

He established a Human Rights Advisory Board. Tick.

And he produced an enormous Activity Report which – just like Bid Books – he knew no-one would actually read, but the pictures look good. Tick.

So many boxes ticked! Infantino imagined he would stand triumphant before his flock of 211 member associations gathered in Bahrain, the cameras focused on him, to declare that the FIFA past is another country.

Until Richard Lai came along. 

Until last Thursday, hardly anyone inside Guam (a US territory with a population of 170,000) had heard of Richard Lai, let alone outside of it.

He was President of the Guam FA for about 16 years. Last week, he pleaded guilty to corruption charges in a Brooklyn court.

What he did, you couldn’t make up. In summary:

  • Lai took money from “co-conspirator #2” – about $850,000 in total – in order to spy on, and undermine, “co-conspirator #1”.
  • Two years later, co-conspirator #1 approached Lai to undertake ‘consulting’ work for him for a fee of $100,000. Lai took that money too, even though there was never any consulting work. Later, when it was known that co-conspirator #1 was alleged to be a serial briber, Lai said nothing and didn’t give the money back.

While not named, co-conspirator #1 is Mohamed Bin Hammam.

And although he has publicly denied any wrongdoing, co-conspirator #2 is widely understood to be Sheikh Ahmad Al-Sabah of Kuwait. 

Shaikh Ahmad and his close friend, the Asian Football Confederation president Sheikh Salman Al-Khalifa of Bahrain (yes, Bahrain again), were so appreciative of Lai’s efforts over the years that they rewarded Lai with a FIFA committee position to go with his AFC executive positions.

Can you guess which one? Try not to snigger – Audit and Compliance! Yes! Until Friday, he was listed as a committee member. He’s now gone.

However, in the grand scheme of this particular indictment, Lai is just bait.

The really big fish is Sheikh Ahmad.

With the DoJ circling around Sheikh Ahmad there will be many nervous people in the football world, and beyond into the Olympic movement and other sports.

Here’s what the FBI Special-Agent-in-Charge had to say about the case:

“Co-conspirators may try to hide and launder the proceeds of their corrupt self-enrichment, but as mentioned in the legal documents filed today, IRS-CI Special Agents will trace and uncover those funds both through the US financial system and beyond, to offshore jurisdictions in locations such as Asia, the Middle East, and around the globe.”

Can you hear the collective “gulp”?

On Monday Sheikh Ahmad resigned from all his positions in football. They include Infantino’s ‘new’ FIFA Council and Salman’s ‘new’ AFC Executive. He has withdrawn from the race to be re-elected to the FIFA Council.

He was also a member of the FIFA reform committee. Remember that? It was chaired by former IOC secretary-general, Francois Carrard, to devise a suite of limited reforms that could satisfy authorities and not frighten the FIFA Congress.

Sheikh Ahmad hailed Infantino’s election as FIFA President. He warned that FIFA reform wouldn’t happen overnight. He was right about that – and it’s precisely the way they wanted it.

Sheikh Ahmad’s influence in world sport is far and wide. 

He was pivotal in ensuring Thomas Bach became IOC President. He has long been the power behind the throne of Sheikh Salman.

Last year the FIFA Presidential election needed to go to a second round of voting. Sheikh Ahmad knew what was needed to keep the marauding lances of US (and possibly Swiss) authorities at bay. He quietly slipped out of the room and used his powers of persuasion to convince voters who he thought they should vote for.  

He has many friends in Africa. 

In Australia? Not so many. Other than his now-former-fellow AFC executive member, Moya Dodd, Sheikh Ahmad isn’t fond of Australia.

When Bin Hammam pushed for Australia to join the AFC, Ahmad, Salman and others fought hard against it. They lost. It was another – but certainly not the only – reason for the animosity between the two Middle East factions in Asian football.

All eyes on Bahrain

The host of next week’s shindig, Sheikh Salman of Bahrain, must explain how he wasn’t aware of the work co-conspirator #2 did on his behalf.

Gianni Infantino needs to explain how Sheikh Ahmad – FIFA reform committee member, FIFA Council member, AFC Executive member – fits with the narrative of a shiny ‘new FIFA’. He also needs to explain how FIFA’s integrity test enabled Lai to slip through as an Audit and Compliance committee member.

The explanation is not for the representatives of the 211 member associations. On past record, they will do not much more than doze through most of the FIFA Congress. The explanation is owed to those outside the cosseted inner circle of world football. Fans, players, sponsors and investigating authorities from the US, Switzerland and France.

As Infantino sets a position, he might want to be mindful of the final five words of the DoJ’s statement on Thursday:

“The government’s investigation is ongoing.”

That sounds like a promise.

Categories: Analysis | People | Asia | Football Business

fifa corruption, gianni infantino, fifa council, afc, sheikh salman, sheikh ahmad

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