ZURICH — Sepp Blatter has been expelled from FIFA but not eradicated from its headquarters.
A swift left turn after entering FIFA’s slate-walled lobby in Zurich still takes visitors to the place where football’s disgraced self-styled “godfather” is forever president. A plaque of infamy commemorates the FIFA leadership on the day their gleaming global base opened in 2007. Now it provides a snapshot of a sullied era in soccer governance, with six of seven vice presidents serving under Blatter on that May day since implicated in wrongdoing or banned outright from the sport.
FIFA is still trying to shake off the toxic legacy of Blatter, whose 17-year presidency was abruptly halted last October as the extent of his financial misdemeanors started to unravel. The first seven months of Gianni Infantino’s presidency have seen the charge sheet against his predecessor grow even as the new leader embarks on a mission to clean up the organization and rebuild trust.
And yet Infantino shuffles in his seat when Blatter’s name is raised during an Associated Press interview, seemingly reticent to join the chorus of those condemning the man revered for so long by soccer leaders globally.
“That’s not my job to do that,” Infantino responded when asked to assess how damaging Blatter was to FIFA. “There is an ethics committee looking at this.”
Asked whether the 80-year-old Blatter should face jail, Infantino responded: “I don’t want to comment on the past. The facts speak for themselves.”
Already serving a six-year ban for authorizing an improper payment of 2 million Swiss francs to Michel Platini (one of those now discredited former vice presidents), Blatter is under further investigation for bribery and corruption by the FIFA ethics mechanisms he created. He is also a suspect in a Swiss criminal case but denies wrongdoing.
FIFA’s own lawyers said in June that Blatter and two colleagues gained improperly through annual salary increases, World Cup bonuses and other incentives exceeding 79 million Swiss francs over five years.
Infantino, a Swiss-Italian law graduate, is more guarded than FIFA’s own lawyers, withholding a verdict on Blatter until a forensic and financial audit is complete.
“There will be conclusions of this audit on what went wrong and why things went wrong and on what we have to do to improve things here in the future,” Infantino said during an exclusive 30-minute interview — held in a subterranean lounge at FIFA’s Swiss fortress-like HQ where his finger print was required for entry.
“What concerns the past, there are people are dealing with. I have to make sure in the future wrongdoing doesn’t happen anymore in FIFA and around FIFA.”
That isn’t easy when Infantino in February inherited a workforce inevitably packed with Blatter loyalists, staff resistant to change or those still disgruntled at being cut out of the decision-making process. Some executives were dismissed as Infantino cleared out the old guard.
“When you have to embrace such significant reforms, it’s obviously normal you get some blowback and turbulence,” Infantino said. “The worst for a human being is to change his habits. It’s obvious some people were not happy but we have to move on.”
Infantino feels ready to declare: “There is a change now in the culture.”
“The vast majority is embracing the change,” he added, “for a more flat organization where discussion and debate is not prohibited but is open.”
And yet for months, while striving to instill a new adherence to ethical business practices, Infantino was himself under investigation by FIFA’s ethics prosecutors.
Infantino has dismissed as “orchestrated hysteria” claims of excessive spending billed to FIFA for rental cars, a private driver, a tuxedo, flowers and a mattress for his FIFA-owned apartment in Zurich, and a step machine for his office. A FIFA ethics court, which looked into Infantino’s use of private flights to visit Pope Francis at the Vatican, Vladimir Putin in Moscow and the Emir of Qatar, found that no rules had been broken.
The damaging leaks, which emerged in early June after a shaky first congress in Mexico for Infantino, seemed intended to paint him as unscrupulous as the old regime.
“The perception was also fed by those who did not want change to happen — you can’t make omelets without breaking eggs,” he said. “You learn always from everything you do. I’m certainly not someone who has never made mistakes. I am certainly not immune from making mistakes. What is important is to always do things with conviction.”
The 46-year-old Infantino is FIFA’s accidental president. His campaign was only launched on the back of Platini being suspended with Blatter last year, emerging from the shadow of his former boss at European soccer’s governing body to lead the global game.
As UEFA’s top administrator, Infantino’s moments in the limelight came when hosting Champions League draws while his day-to-day work was in the background, implementing Platini’s policies. The two men ended up on the same plane from Switzerland to the UEFA Congress in Athens this week, when onlookers were quick to spread word of their lack of interaction.
“Before the plane we shook hands,” said Infantino, who occupies the job that Platini, the former France captain and coach, craved for so long.
Assuming the leadership of the world’s most popular sport and World Cup organizer hasn’t been comfortable for Infantino.
“One other thing that did surprise me, beside the tough opposition, was the public scrutiny that you are faced with,” Infantino said. “You learn to deal with this, to be maybe a bit more sensitive.”
Apart from swelling the World Cup by eight teams to make it a 40-country competition and taking about changes to the Olympic football competition, Infantino is still short of detail about his plans for FIFA — beyond overseeing its clean-up.
And there is wariness not only about condemning Blatter but also Russia, host of the 2018 World Cup, over a World Anti-Doping Agency investigation which exposed a state-sponsored doping scheme that included football,
“It’s not my job to judge this report,” Infantino said.
“Let’s work in a positive sense in this direction rather than trying to undermine” the World Cup, he added, while backing Russia’s sports minister, Vitality Mutko, implicated in the doping program. Mutko denies any wrongdoing.
When it comes to threats by Europe’s elite clubs to form a breakaway Super League or world competition, Infantino sidestepped the chance to assert FIFA’s authority and warn them to remain in the existing structures.
Instead, Infantino has prioritized enhancing FIFA’s relations with clubs, hosting Barcelona’s president in Zurich on Thursday to “re-establish relations after two years” following the Spanish champions’ transfer ban in 2015.
Asked if the tax fraud conviction for Barcelona’s star player, Lionel Messi, should prevent him being crowned world player of the year again by FIFA, Infantino said: “It has nothing to do with his performances on the pitch.” Messi has said he is appealing the Spanish court’s deicsion.
Infantino’s public replies and actions ooze caution in marked contrast to the shoot-from-the-hip Blatter, whose staff would be on tenterhooks, fearing a gaffe or controversial statement, when he faced the media.
“I don’t work with threats,” Infantino says of his leadership style. “I work much more on dialogue and finding common solutions with everyone.”
Infantino cannot afford to offend the global game. He is only completing Blatter’s ill-fated fifth, four-year term that started in May 2015 and has to seek re-election in less than three years.
“The time is not enough to do all the things I would like to do,” Infantino said.