FIFA ethics committee overhaul does further damage to credibility
MANAMA, Bahrain -- The jokes are easy to make. They always are. FIFA -- scandal-plagued FIFA -- wants a new ethics committee? Of course it does.
But the truth is that the decision by FIFA's top leaders on Tuesday to remove and replace the two men at the fore of investigating corruption inside soccer says more about the process by which FIFA has tried to self-regulate corruption than it does about the work those two men did.
Hans-Joachim Eckert and Cornel Borbely, a judge and an investigator, respectively, said on Wednesday that they were stunned by the decision not to renew their tenures as leaders of FIFA's ethics chamber. They also expressed concern about the future of ethics investigations, saying there is no current mechanism in place for transition to the new ethics leaders and that there are "several hundred" active cases still in flux. That is a reasonable point.
So, too, is the position of Victor Montagliani, the president of CONCACAF, who said that FIFA -- like any organization -- has the right to change the people on its boards and committees at the appropriate times, adding that the people picked to replace Eckert and Borbely have excellent credentials for the job. He is not wrong.
The problem is in the original set-up. FIFA president Gianni Infantino ran for office on a campaign of reform and transparency, of more intense self-regulation and an adherence to good governance. Then, not long after Infantino himself was investigated for a potential ethics violation over the use of a private airplane, Borbely and Eckert are removed.
Is there a connection? FIFA officials say no. Eckert and Borbely equivocated, constantly affirming that they were dismissed for "political" reasons but not being entirely specific about what those political reasons might be. FIFA's statement on the new appointments, who will be announced on Thursday, maintained: "These individuals have been chosen because they are recognised, high-profile experts in their respective fields. Moreover, they better reflect the geographic and gender diversity that must be a part of an international organisation like FIFA."
Both men also went out of their way to say that FIFA had largely been cooperative, not obstructionist, while they were on the job. "All I can tell you is that it worked very well until yesterday," Borbely said.
In many ways, it does not matter. What does is the basic premise that the people charged with investigating corruption within an organization's leaders are also hired and fired by those same leaders. Would it be better if an outside organization was set up to monitor FIFA's standards? Or at least used to hire the judges and attorneys tasked with hearing its cases? At a minimum, it would offer a measure of credibility to the process that is sorely missing.
There is also no structure set-up to allow for an orderly transition, creating the kind of chaos that surprised the members who have gathered here for Thursday's annual FIFA Congress. A standardized term for each investigator and judge -- of four years or eight years, perhaps -- would make it much easier to ensure that important investigations aren't delayed or rebooted altogether.
Fans, understandably, are weary of FIFA corruption stories. That is what makes it easy to joke. But FIFA's efforts to repair itself need to be more aggressive. Borbely said that removing him and Eckert from their posts is indicative that "the reform process has at least stepped back several years."
That feels a bit hyperbolic. But this decision should cause FIFA to look more deeply at the root of the situation. If FIFA isn't the one making decisions about its ethics committee, it becomes a lot more difficult for anyone to make those all-too-familiar jokes.
Sam Borden is a Global Sports Correspondent for ESPN, also covering soccer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamBorden.