Gianni Infantino blasts 'fake news' as he defends 'democratic' FIFA
MANAMA, Bahrain -- FIFA president Gianni Infantino says "FIFA's crisis is over." Others aren't quite sure.
Addressing the full Congress of the sport's governing body here on Thursday, Infantino, who was voted in last February, struck a combative tone and even used language favored by U.S. President Donald Trump in decrying "fake news" that, he said, has turned "FIFA bashing" into a "national sport" in some parts of the world.
Asked to elaborate in a news conference afterward, Infantino equivocated, circuitously saying he wasn't referring to the news media but then seeming to criticise what he called misinformed reports.
He did stick to his statement, however, that even as criminal investigations have identified more allegedly corrupt football officials, "the way we are working now -- the crisis is over."
Yet that is hardly a universal view. Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, of Jordan, a former candidate for the FIFA presidency, said after the Congress that he was distressed by the lack of change he has seen in FIFA since Infantino took office.
Much as before, Prince Ali said that a small group of officials -- previously the executive committee and now the renamed FIFA Council -- is dictating the organization's approach to issues, as opposed to fully involving the entire 211-member Congress.
"The system and the way business is conducted is the same" as under the former president, Sepp Blatter, Prince Ali said.
Asked if he felt Infantino had followed through on his promise to inject full democracy into FIFA, Prince Ali hesitated.
"I don't know if I want to answer that question," he finally said.
Many of the more critical questions directed towards Infantino this week have been related to the FIFA Council's decision to replace the top ethics judge and investigator assigned to monitor violations.
Those two officials, Hans-Joachim Eckert and Cornel Borbely, were surprised by the move -- they knew their term was ending but said they had no reason to believe they wouldn't be re-nominated -- and arrived here stunned to learn they were being replaced.
Miguel Maduro, a highly regarded official charged with handling ethics checks for FIFA, was also replaced.
Infantino said the FIFA Council simply decided other candidates were better choices. He dismissed concerns about a stunted transition process perhaps delaying justice in the "hundreds" of pending cases that Borbely said would be in jeopardy.
"I don't think we should make a tragedy out of it," he said in addressing his second congress as president. "It's a storm in a teacup."
Infantino also praised outside law-enforcement agencies, such as the United States Department of Justice, for their investigations into corruption in football. He said he is committed to changing the culture of FIFA, and noted how transparent the organization has become in publicly disclosing its financial machinations.
Prince Ali, on the other hand, cited the ethics committee changes and Infantino asking the Congress to delay a decision on the Israel-Palestine issue regarding borders as an example of moves that were essentially unilateral.
Infantino disputed Prince Ali's characterisation, saying, "That's his opinion, which I fully respect. Ninety-seven, 98, 99 percent of the Congress held a different opinion," but Prince Ali said his concerns are legitimate.
"We have a president who says 'everything is fine, everything is fine,'" Prince Ali said. "Obviously it's not."
Infantino took charge in February last year after Blatter was forced out for financial wrongdoing, a branch of a wider scandal that saw FIFA executives indicted by the U.S. authorities.
"We are rebuilding the credibility of FIFA. The new FIFA is a democracy, it is not a dictatorship.
"New FIFA... it is a transparent organisation, not an organisation that is fiddling around with facts and figures," he said.
"It is a deeply honest organisation, not an organisation that looks to spend money without purpose."
Infantino blamed media reports for distorting coverage of his attempts to rebuild FIFA and said: "Sadly, the truth is not what is necessarily true but what people believe is true.
"There is a lot of fake news and alternative facts about FIFA circulating. FIFA bashing has become a national sport in some countries."
FIFA first embarked on a reform mission in 2011 after election bribery allegations, but the deeper financial scandal exploded four years later with raids in Zurich and the arrest of officials.
"Where were all these self-proclaimed good governance and compliance gurus who were supposed to control FIFA when all this was happening?" Infantino asked.
"We will not accept any good governance lesson from any of these individuals who have miserably failed in protecting football, protecting FIFA, and in protecting football from FIFA."
He said 2011 reform supervisors had "simply rubber-stamped a sick and wrong system" and added: "It is not me saying it, it is the criminal courts saying it all over the world."
Infantino warned: "If there's anyone in this room or outside of this room who still thinks he can enrich himself, that he can abuse football, I have one clear and strong message -- leave football and leave football now. We don't want you."
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
Sam Borden is a Global Sports Correspondent for ESPN, also covering soccer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamBorden.