Infantino: Lauber meetings were a step towards detoxifying Fifa
By Euan Cunningham
Gianni Infantino, the president of Fifa, has claimed it was his “duty” as president of soccer's world governing body to meet with the former Swiss attorney general Michael Lauber to discuss corruption matters, and that allegations of wrongdoing relating to the discussions are "completely absurd."
Addressing the 70th Fifa congress, held virtually, on Friday, Infantino (pictured) said the meetings with Lauber in 2016 and 2017 were held to help “liberate Fifa from its old, toxic values.”
One meeting in June 2017 received particular scrutiny, as it was undocumented and Lauber took no notes, and led eventually to him tendering his resignation in July this year, after a Swiss court found he had misled investigators in not disclosing it.
The conversations came amid a probe into corruption at Fifa, which is headquartered in Zurich, and claims to have been a victim of wrongdoing by officials in the past.
However, in July, it emerged that Stefan Keller, the Swiss special federal public prosecutor, had begun proceedings after finding "indications of criminal conduct" relating to the meetings.
Infantino was cleared by the Fifa ethics committee of violating the regulations of the governing body, following a preliminary investigation.
At the congress, the Swiss official steadfastly defended his conduct, saying: "To think that going to a meeting with the highest prosecutor in the country to do something strange... (It) is not only far-fetched, it’s completely absurd.
“These were not secret meetings - they occurred in public spaces and were organised by the attorney’s office, so I don’t think we can say they were secret. So why was I meeting (with the attorney general)? Because it was my duty as Fifa president… I had to do my due diligence.”
He added: “I want to liberate Fifa from its old, toxic values, so we have to deal with our past. We will continue to fight against corruption, and we will continue to cooperate with authorities all over the world who will help us to reform the sport and clean it up.
“Eventually, we’ll see that those who have made up conspiracy theories and want to cause damage by spreading them, will fall victim to their own schemes and will reveal themselves.”
The meetings with Lauber related to the status of the Office of the Attorney General's investigation of corruption at Fifa, and their undocumented nature prompted allegations of collusion.
On the subject of Fifa’s current image, Infantino, who succeeded the long-serving, but ultimately banned Sepp Blatter in February 2016, claimed it was “credible, trustworthy and modern… and also accountable.
“Just have a look at our transparent financial records and compare them with those from the past if you want… we will be able to convince the sceptics eventually. Don’t forget that Fifa was the victim of corrupt officials, it was pronounced dead in 2015.”
Infantino was re-elected unopposed for a further four years at the 2019 Fifa congress.
This year's event was held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic, and Infantino said that its relief plan, under which it is distributing $1.5 billion to national associations and continental confederations is a programme of “accountability and good governance.”
He added that the entire programme was possible because “in the new Fifa, the money doesn’t disappear anymore. We know now exactly where the money goes, and why. It will be a fully transparent process [for how it is distributed]."
In a post-congress press conference, Infantino insisted that there were now tighter rules on the award of television rights, after concerns that some previous contracts were awarded without a tender.
Responding to a question from the UK's Times newspaper, he said: "Fifa has internal rules in place regarding tender processes and how they should be conducted - this is something we have introduced.
“Sometimes in countries there is no competition however - the only competition comes from pay-TV broadcasters, and we want competitions like the World Cup shown on free TV. So it changes from country to country.
"Everything has to be documented and done properly, because this is where in my opinion many problems can start - we need to make sure that money coming into associations is doing so in a legitimate and transparent way, so yes we have rules in place.”
On Fifa's finances Infantino had spoken of “a very healthy and solid situation," adding: "We have been able to, via good conservative management, set aside a significant amount of money for our reserves.”
At the Congress, a revised budget for the 2019-22 period was approved, which projects total revenue of $6.44 billion and total expenditure of $6.34 billion.
The profit margin of $100 million is the same as was originally budgeted, but the revenue was scheduled to be $6.56 billion and the expenditure to be $6.46 billion.
The drops in both revenue and expenses are both primarily due to the pandemic, which has necessitated the postponement of the revamped Fifa Club World Cup that was due to take place in China in June and July of 2021.
That slot has had to be filled by the delayed 2020 European Championships and Copa America.
Meanwhile, this year's Club World Cup, which was due to take place in December of this year, and form part of the Gulf state's preparations for the 2022 World Cup, is likely to be delayed, according to Infantino.
The Fifa president also has concerns about the postponement of qualifiers in the Americas for the World Cup.
The protracted South American qualifying campaign, originally due to get under way in March, will now not start until October, while the qualifiers in the Concacaf region, covering North and Central America and the Caribbean, have been delayed to March 2021.
Infantino said: “It’s a real problem - yes, I am concerned, especially if the pandemic doesn’t stop.
“We have already foreseen a new window in the international calendar in early 2022… and we are lucky the World Cup is not taking place until November and December that year. We will make sure the qualifiers are played all over the world.”
The next Fifa congress is due to take place in Tokyo in 2021.