FIFA is preparing to revoke the reforms implemented after the corruption scandal

The 12-page report was aimed at saving football's governing body, FIFA, in its moment of existential crisis.

Filled with reform proposals and written by more than a dozen insiders in December 2015, the report was FIFA's best chance to demonstrate to business partners, U.S. investigators and billions of fans that it can be trusted again after one of the largest corruption scandals in sports history.

Through bullet points and numbered sections, the report championed lofty ideas such as responsibility and humility. It also proposed concrete and, for FIFA, revolutionary changes: transparency in how key decisions were reached; term limits for top leaders and new limits on presidential power; and the abolition of well-funded committees, widely seen as a system of institutional corruption.

And there, on the last page of the report, at the bottom of the list of its authors, was the name of the man who proposed himself as FIFA's savior: Gianni Infantino.

Mr Infantino, an administrator at European soccer's governing body, has been brought in to help outline the reviews. When they were announced, he was a candidate for the presidency of FIFA. Presenting himself as a clean break with the past, he took office a few months later and quickly began implementing many of the changes. The sport's six regional confederations have also vowed to clean up their act.

Less than a decade later, the appetite for football reform appears to have waned. An external audit of African football's governing body, commissioned after FIFA took control of the organisation, has suggested tens of millions of dollars in misappropriated funds. Governing bodies in Europe and North and Central America have backed away from reforms or ignored those promises altogether, according to a comparison of public commitments and concrete actions. The Asian Football Confederation will vote this week on abolishing term limits for its senior officials.

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

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

The FIFA institution, as well as Infantino personally, often calls for strong support for its reviews whenever questions of corporate integrity are raised. Although Infantino rarely gives interviews, FIFA said in response to questions about the rollback of reforms that changes made after the 2015 scandals transformed it “from a toxic institution to a respected, trusted and modern”.

This pivot to shaping governance, he said, has been “recognized by several external organizations, including the U.S. Department of Justice.”

But American officials said last week they had never reviewed FIFA's rules or governance standards, and the prosecutor's office that prosecuted many of the corruption cases has refused to support the federation's changes.

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

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

But in a sign of the Justice Department's reticence to back FIFA's claims of being a changed institution, U.S. officials have refused to pay $201 million in restitution funds that they awarded directly to FIFA or its related federations. Instead, they took the unusual step of requiring the creation of a U.S.-based foundation to receive the proceeds.

At the same time, FIFA moved to amend the revised statutes following the scandal. In the 2015 study, for example, Infantino and his fellow report authors called for the dismantling of a bloated committee system that for years was one of FIFA's worst excesses: a patronage assignments program in which soccer officials from around the world could enjoy luxury air travel, five-star accommodations and huge annual salaries, all at FIFA's expense, in exchange for their loyalty and votes.

At the time, FIFA had 26 such permanent committees. The 2015 report recommended a reduction to nine “to improve efficiency”. There are currently only seven.

But as part of proposed rule changes being considered this week in Bangkok, Infantino will ask members to approve a five-fold increase, to 35 committees, as well as the power to create new ones – and appoint members – when deemed necessary. appropriate.

FIFA said it needed additional committees because it had significantly expanded its functions and suggested the roles would create more positions for women. Some meetings, we read, will be held by teleconference. It has not been said how those in charge of the commissions will be chosen, but there is already interest in the roles.

One sports official, who works for another major sporting body but has served on FIFA committees in the past, smiled when told of their reinstatement. He asked to remain anonymous because he still has ties to the organization. But he said he hoped he would be offered a place since the perks traditionally included access to prized World Cup tickets.

In region after region, promises of change have already been watered down. The Asian Football Confederation's vote this week to abolish term limits will allow its president and board members to remain in office indefinitely. (The AFC said four of its member associations had requested the change.) The European football president's attempt to stay beyond the limit of his 12-year term was approved but rendered meaningless when he said he he would not have run. (He said he had not planned to extend his mandate 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 bring follow through on promised changes such as hiring independent board members. (He did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.)

At the same time, the culture of well-paid sinecures and all-powerful presidents has been somewhat strengthened. Members of FIFA's top council earn $250,000 to $350,000 a year for a job that may require attendance at a minimum of three meetings a year. Mr. Infantino has seen his salary more than double since taking office, to nearly $5 million, and recently oversaw a change in term limits — specific to him — that could allow him to remain in his position for 15 years instead of the 12. assigned by the FIFA statute.

Miguel Maduro, the first FIFA governance chief appointed by Infantino after his election, accused the organization's culture of having returned to the old ways. “It's not enough to cut down a few bad apples,” he said, “if the trees that produced them remain in place.”

Maduro, who left his government position in 2017, called the weakening of the guard rails “a formalization of the U-turn on reforms.” He defined the latest changes as “confirmation” of a process informally started years ago.

As Infantino consolidated his position, he simultaneously reversed changes intended to reduce his office's influence. Under the proposed reforms, the president would become an “ambassador” for sport, and greater authority would be transferred to FIFA's top administrator, the secretary general – a post that has been reshaped to more closely resemble that of a chief executive.

Yet for much of Infantino's tenure, Fatma Samoura, whom he chose as general secretary, was rarely involved in important matters. Instead, major decisions were increasingly consolidated into fewer and fewer hands and controlled by a group known as the Bureau.

In meetings held behind closed doors, members of the bureau – the six regional football presidents and Infantino – traded important events with each other. In October they presented the FIFA Council with a plan that narrows the candidates for the 2030 men's World Cup to just one choice, a tricontinental bid that will take place in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, as well as Morocco, Portugal and Spain.

This 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 began. Within 24 hours, he gained support from both the Asian Football Confederation and Infantino.

FIFA members still have to vote to confirm the organizers of the 2030 and 2034 events. But with only one candidate running for each tournament, and with Infantino's preferred outcome clear, those votes appear to be a fait accompli.

And since Ms. Samoura recently left FIFA, the reduction of her old job is likely to be formalized in Bangkok as well. According to the new draft statute, any reference to the general secretary's role as FIFA chief executive will be deleted. Instead, the position, which previously reported to the board, will now also report directly to the president.

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