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FIFA's new ethics code shows intention to end transparency

Infantino's public calls for transparency helped get him elected but the recent ethics code update shows that he's interested in the opposite.
Infantino's public calls for transparency helped get him elected, but the recent ethics code update shows that he is interested in the opposite.

Last week, FIFA published a new ethics code. You might think this a positive step, one that strengthens the corporate governance of an organisation healing itself after years of scandal. You would be wrong.

After its greatest humiliation -- the FBI's dawn raids in May 2015, when several Congress-attending dignitaries were plucked from the Baur Au Lac hotel -- FIFA took genuine steps to combat corruption. FIFA president Gianni Infantino, elected in the wake of that scandal, convinced many observers that he would carry the job through. Elected on a transparency-and-reform ticket, he was supposedly the antidote to his despised predecessor, Sepp Blatter.

Instead, under Infantino, FIFA is systematically dismantling efforts to create the "modern, trusted and professional organisation" that FIFA had previously, and quite credibly, spoken of. The culmination of this came Monday, when the revision of its 2012 ethics code to a new version took effect.

The most alarming new measure is the introduction of a "defamation" clause, which states: "Persons bound by this code are forbidden from making any public statements of a defamatory nature towards FIFA and/or towards any other person bound by this code in the context of FIFA events."

When Rob Harris of the Associated Press drew attention to this and other elements of the new code, FIFA wrote an indignant public response. "The world of football is not immune to conduct that aims to tarnish the reputations of others, and such conduct, like any other unethical conduct mentioned in the Code of Ethics, must be sanctioned accordingly," it said.

Perhaps that sounds reasonable. But it is necessary to consider the practical impact of this new section. However much FIFA protests, the aim is to deter anyone who might feel ethically obliged to speak out against corrupt conduct at FIFA and its confederations or member associations. With the risk of defaming a football official hanging overhead, the burden of proof will lie with the complainant, who risks a two-year ban from football activity or five for "serious cases" that are repeated.

This risk of losing a livelihood in the game will have a chilling effect on whistle-blowing. And if no one has the courage to speak out against malfeasance, it is clear the new ethics code creates the conditions for corruption.

That isn't the only change, either. For the first time, FIFA has brought in a statute of limitations for bribery, embezzlement and match-fixing offences to be investigated. These "may no longer be prosecuted after a lapse of 10 years," the code declares. This is in the context of calls last month from the chair of the UK parliament's influential committee on sport, Damian Collins, for a formal inquiry into activities around the bid that led to Qatar hosting the 2022 World Cup. With less than 18 months before this new statute of limitations kicks in, there is now little chance of that.

Indeed, though it has a global governance function, FIFA is not equipped to conduct widespread, in-depth investigations. Under Infantino, the resources applied to such efforts have shrunk. In 2016, the proportion of FIFA's football expenditure on its judicial bodies in the Disciplinary, Ethics and Appeal Committees was 2.18 percent, an already negligible sum. In 2017, Infantino's first full year in charge, this fell to a derisory 1.35 percent.

Nothing demonstrates an organisation's commitment to an activity more than the money it throws at it, and even before this new "Qatar Clause," Infantino had made his intentions known. Cornel Borbely, head of the FIFA Ethics Committee's investigations chamber, and Hans-Joachim Eckert, chairman of its adjudicatory chamber, had been enthusiastic enforcers of the previous ethics code. FIFA officials they took down included the previous FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, and the UEFA president, Michel Platini. They were even looking into reports of misfeasance by Infantino at one point. Those are the kind of reports that would be banned under the new defamation clause.

Eckert and Borbely were effectively ousted by Infantino last year, whereupon they announced, "it seems the FIFA hierarchy has valued its own and political interests higher than the long-term interests of FIFA," adding that this was "the de facto end of FIFA's reform efforts."

Infantino likes to project a persona of a smiling, tactile buddy of football's superstars, someone who's in the job for the love of the game. It has been effective, as many people see him this way. Yet his actions have been altogether more concerning. He knows how Blatter, who spent 34 years as FIFA president and general secretary, thrived in an environment in which corruption and embezzlement were allowed to take root.

Although he is limited to three four-year terms as president -- for now, at least -- Infantino would doubtless love similar longevity. Since installing himself in Blatter's plush presidential suite at FIFA House, his fellow Swiss has taken FIFA down a path the old man would know only too well.

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