Posted May 16, 2017 1:46 PM

FIFA struggles to regain trust in soccer world

By Rob Harris
Associated Press global soccer writer

MANAMA, Bahrain — Even after a year under new leadership, FIFA is still pleading with the world: Trust us.

The message is proving as hard to sell as sponsorship of the World Cup.

It’s no wonder. Gianni Infantino arrived at his second congress as FIFA president last week with his “crisis is over” declaration at last year’s gathering of soccer’s 211 nations looking remarkably outlandish.

Criminal investigations are still exposing shady transactions.

The suitability of members of the ruling council remains in doubt.

Reforms intended to curb the powers of the president and restore FIFA’s credibility are being eroded.

Against this backdrop, FIFA has been trying to persuade commercial backers to sign up after so many were scared off by the corruption that plagued the Sepp Blatter era.

FIFA’s leadership was able to start its congress week in Bahrain by trumpeting the arrival of Qatar Airways to fill the airline sponsorship category that has been vacant for more than two years. But the deal was anticipated given it is the state-owned carrier of the 2022 World Cup hosts.

A true test of the confidence of FIFA’s new hierarchy will come when major international corporations sign up that are not from China, Russia or Qatar — the source of all of FIFA’s new World Cup deals in recent years.

New sponsors in traditional strongholds like Japan and the United States have yet to convince shareholders they should partner with a scandal-tainted organization. Many were scared off in 2015 when FIFA’s reputation was shredded by widespread bribery being exposed after high-ranking executives were arrested in Zurich hotel raids.

“We hope that more (sponsors) will come before the end of the year,” FIFA Secretary General Fatma Samoura told The Associated Press. “That was a strong signal from Qatar Airways to recognize the new leadership of FIFA is working toward restoring the image of FIFA and that there is climate of trust that is really here to push for more partnerships.”

Trust, according to Samoura, also comes through a new generation of officials being elected to the FIFA Council.

“It’s a strong demonstration that gender empowerment,” Samoura said, pointing to Mahfuza Akhter of Bangladesh being elected early last week as Asia’s female representative at FIFA.

It was a surprise result. Moya Dodd, an outspoken critic of corruption and prominent champion of women’s football, lost to Akhter, who couldn’t name the Women’s World Cup holder in a post-election interview.

American soccer stars Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd were among those to express surprise at the setback for Dodd, an Australian lawyer who is still on the Asian Football Confederation executive committee.

“I’m sure she will land on her feet somehow in football,” said Samoura, who was hired last year as FIFA’s first female secretary general. “She has football in her heart and I’m sure that FIFA or another confederation or her home federation will continue to make good use of her skills.”

Those skills were used by a reform committee in 2015 that helped to reshape FIFA following the U.S. Department of Justice indictments of soccer officials.

The progress of some reforms, however, appears to have stalled — despite Infantino helping to draft them in the FIFA-appointed advisory panel while he was a presidential candidate.

Power should have drained from the presidency to the CEO-like secretary general, but Infantino has retained a Blatter-like grip on executive authority. A new FIFA bureau that was not on the reform program now has given more authority to Infantino and the six regional confederation leaders, whose decisions need not be ratified by a 37-strong council that replaced the discredited executive committee.

“That can be the appearance,” CONCACAF President Victor Montagliani said, “but I think the collaborations at the council level and the discussions are quite healthy. The bureau is there to act in between when the council meets. If there are decisions that are needed on a timely basis for operational issues they have to be made.”

The most recent addition to the bureau and council is Ahmad Ahmad, who ended Issa Hayatou’s 29-year grip on power in Africa in March.

But the FIFA vice president has unwelcome links to the tainted old regime. E-mail correspondence between Ahmad and an aide to disgraced former FIFA presidential candidate Mohamed bin Hammam of Qatar was published by British newspaper The Sunday Times in 2014. The e-mails from 2010 detailed Ahmad reminding Bin Hammam that he promised money to help Ahmad’s re-election campaign to lead the Madagascar federation.

The Bin Hammam aide who Ahmad was e-mailing was banned for life by the FIFA ethics committee in January for involvement in unethical payments made to soccer officials.

“If it’s your idea, take it, give it,” Ahmad responded vaguely when asked about the payments last week. “Ask him. Don’t ask me.”

FIFA has lost two officials recently following fresh American revelations about wrongdoing.

FIFA audit committee member Richard Lai, an American citizen from Guam, pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy charges related to taking around $1 million in bribes including at least $850,000 from Kuwaiti officials.

The cash was to buy influence and help recruit other Asian soccer officials prepared to take bribes, Lai said in court in New York.

Kuwaiti powerbroker Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah was implicated in the investigation and, despite maintaining his innocence, he quit the election to regain his seat on the FIFA Council this week.

Lai is under a formal FIFA ethics investigation, and the claims against Sheikh Ahmad will also be scrutinized.

But the fate of the independent ethics officials who have convicted corrupt FIFA officials is also uncertain.

There has been speculation that Hans-Joachim Eckert, the ethics judge who brought down Blatter, could be replaced along with ethics investigator Cornel Borbely. They must seek re-election at Thursday’s congress but FIFA has repeatedly declined to provide lists of candidates to lead its judicial bodies.

Infantino is suspected of a personal motive to install new ethics leadership, although he hasn’t called for Eckert and Borbely to go. The former UEFA general secretary was frustrated that he faced an ethics investigation last year for his use of private jets early in his presidency.

The case cast doubt over the “new era” in FIFA proclaimed last year by Infantino. The old FIFA ways continue to seem hard to shake off.

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