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Gianni Infantino’s New FIFA: Courting Donald Trump And Chatting To William Barr Under The Shadow Of A Swiss Investigation

This time there was no buzz, no local hospitality to feast on, no delegates and no warm rounds of applause for the FIFA president. Instead, the FIFA Congress, which traditionally unites soccer bosses from around the world in swanky five-star hotels with organizational costs running into millions of dollars, was played out on Zoom. It allowed Gianni Infantino to stage another fast-tracked and tightly-controlled congress, his own persona once again at the epicenter. The FIFA boss delivered a robust defence of his presidency at the helm of the global game, wrapping up a dramatic week after a flying visit to both Donald Trump and US Attorney General William Barr.

Infantino’s trip to Washington DC was kept under wraps until the world federation on Thursday announced his meeting with the US president and Barr, evoking speculation why the FIFA president had visited the White House for a third time since soccer’s governing body awarded the 2026 World Cup hosting rights to the USA. Trump has quickly become Infantino’s favorite president. In January, Trump and Infantino lunched together at the World Economic Forum in Davos. 

In Switzerland, Infantino, however, remains under investigation following secret meetings with federal prosecutor Michael Lauber, who has stepped down from his position. The FIFA boss has always denied any wrongdoing.

At the FIFA Congress, Infantino had little choice but to address the investigation for the first time in public and he boldly claimed that his meetings with Lauber were part of his mission to clean up the global governing body. 

Infantino said: “[These were] meetings that were meant to definitively make it clear that the new FIFA was worlds away from the old FIFA. Don’t forget that FIFA had become victim to corrupt officials. That’s what courts say all over the world. In 2015 FIFA was toxic, was pronounced dead, an organisation that had severed itself from football. So why was I meeting the Swiss Attorney-General? Because it was my duty as FIFA president. I had to do my due diligence because I wanted to liberate FIFA from those old toxic values. No organisation can be led into the future if you don’t resolve the past. I thought I could do it but it was not possible.” 

So why did Infantino need time in the United States with Barrr ? The meeting seemingly  normalized Infantino’s tendency to meet prosecutors who investigate corruption in the game. It was in the same context as the Lauber meetings, explained Infantino. He said: “That’s precisely why even two days ago I was meeting the US Attorney-General in [Washington] DC to prove that we don’t want to go back to our past, to prove that FIFA has been reformed and to express our gratitude – to say ‘thank you’ that the Department of Justice at the time saved FIFA from itself while others were just standing on the sidelines, watching. We will continue to fight against corruption in football and we will continue to cooperate with all the authorities all over the world that will help us save and reform football [and] clean it up.”

Earlier this week, FIFA signed an MoU with the anti-corruption agency, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “to step up their joint cooperation to address threats posed by crime to sport.” 

It was FIFA’s latest act of reputation cleansing. Infantino tirelessly speaks of ‘the new FIFA’, presenting himself as the great reformer who liberated the organization from a decades-old toxic governance and management culture, but scratch the surface and a different picture emerges: FIFA has not changed under Infantino’s leadership. The Swiss-Italian moved quickly to ensure FIFA’s own supposed guardians of the truth exited the organisation’s judicial bodies, waded into the toxic politics of African soccer he helped aggravate and tried to sell off FIFA competitions for $25bn. Even his early PR stunt to fly low-cost with EasyJet wasn’t upright. Recently, investigative journalists Jan Jensen and Andreas Selliaas detailed Infantino’s preference to fly private in Danish newspaper Extra Bladet.

Of course, these considerations matter little in the FIFA cosmos where presidents consolidate their positions by distributing money. It is a fool-proof way to appease the electorate. Last week, FIFA announced the latest round of development money for the member associations. The 211 members can apply for up to $50,000 each year for a 2-year period per individual programme in the Women’s Development Programme. This funding avenue is budgeted as part of FIFA’s $1 billion investment in the women’s game in the current cycle and supplements FIFA’s $1.5billion Covid-19 relief fund. 

Infantino’s grip on FIFA remains strong, but no FIFA president is untouchable.

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