Manama. FIFA has given no explanation for ousting the two heads of its ethics committee, but the move has led some to point the finger at president Gianni Infantino and left those hoping for reform at world football's governing body feeling uneasy.
FIFA's decision not to renew the mandate of chief ethics investigator Cornel Borbely and chief ethics judge Hans-Joachim Eckert – the men who banned former FIFA head Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini from the game – came at Tuesday's (09/05) meeting of its ruling council.
None of the council members had time to explain the decision to the media on their way out of the meeting, instead hurrying onto a bus to go for dinner at a five-star hotel in the Bahraini capital.
There some spoke off the record about an administrative hiccup, with the Ethics heads having forgotten to put forward their nominations, while others suggested the pair were too costly for the organization. There was also talk that the ethics committee was seen as too "Eurocentric." Eckert is German and Borbely is Swiss.
These arguments were dismissed by the pair themselves, however, when they spoke to media on Wednesday in a sparse room overlooking the venue for FIFA's congress on Thursday.
They warned that the move would lead to valuable knowledge and experience being lost as their replacements, Colombian investigator Maria Claudia Rojas and judge Vassilios Skouris of Greece, will start from scratch on "several hundred" cases.
FIFA's list of nominations for committee heads also indicated the removal of Miguel Maduro, a former government minister in Portugal, who had been head of the governance committee, which had a key role on reforms.
Rumors of the changes had been circulating for a while but, typically of the FIFA world, had been dismissed as gossip just a few weeks ago.
In late March, FIFA general secretary Fatma Samoura told Switzerland’s Tages-Anzeiger newspaper there was no basis to reports that Borbely and Eckert would be axed.
German FA president Reinhard Grindel, a member of the Council, said he had received a similar message when he checked with Samoura's office on Monday this week if anything was planned against the ethics committee heads.
"I asked the day before at the office of the general secretary if there were any announcements that Borbely and Eckert will be displaced and they said no, they had no information."
Nevertheless, Grindel, who defended his compatriot Eckert at the meeting, had no doubt who was behind the decision.
"You have to ask Infantino why he made this proposal," he said. "It is a decision of the president."
But Infantino himself has been silent on the reasons behind the moves.
"The concern is that it is a purge for reasons of self-interest from the FIFA president," said reform campaigner Jamie Fuller of campaign group "New FIFA Now" who compared the Swiss to his compatriot Blatter.
"The decisions of the council and so many actions of Mr. Infantino’s administration are no more trustworthy than his predecessors," he said.
On the other hand, at least one supporter of Infantino defended Tuesday's decision, with Concacaf's Canadian president Victor Montagliani rejecting Borbely and Eckert's view that their replacement marked the death of reforms.
"With all due respect to their opinions I don't believe that at all [...] Yes, the ethics committees are very important but it's not like we replaced them with non-independent people," he said.
"It's been way overblown from a hype perspective. Maybe it's my Canadian background, I'm a little uncomfortable when judges start speaking in the media, either during their tenureship or even after their tenureship. I think that is quite unprofessional, quite frankly," he said.
Montagliani was talking after a press conference promoting the bid of three Concacaf members – the United States, Canada and Mexico – to host the 2026 World Cup.
The men in charge of FIFA's ethics campaign may be out of a job, but the business of football's global body continues.
'Hundreds' of Cases Ongoing
Ousted FIFA ethics investigator Borbely said on Wednesday his committee had been looking at "several hundred" cases of possible wrongdoing, some involving senior officials, before he was replaced by the body's ruling council.
Borbely and Eckert labelled the move "de facto the end of reforms" at FIFA and said it was a setback for attempts to clean up its operations.
Several dozen football officials, mainly from Latin America, were indicted in the United States in 2015 on corruption-related charges, sparking the worst crisis in FIFA's history.
Among officials now banned from the sport are former FIFA president Sepp Blatter and secretary general Jerome Valcke.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino was also investigated by the ethics committee, but he was cleared in August 2016.
Speaking at a news conference held close to the venue for FIFA's Congress, Borbely said the move was a "setback for the fight against corruption" with the know-how and experience in the cases concerned likely to be lost.
"We investigated several hundred cases and several hundred are still pending and ongoing at the moment," Borbely said, adding that he could not comment on cases still under way.
FIFA said on Tuesday that it has nominated Colombian investigator Maria Claudia Rojas as the new head of the committee's investigatory chamber, which Borbely had headed. It also nominated Vassilios Skouris of Greece, a former president of the European Court of Justice, as head of the adjudicatory chamber that Eckert had run.
The nominations of Rojas and Skouris, along with other proposed heads of committees, will be put to a vote of the full FIFA Congress on Thursday.
FIFA said the judicial nominations, along with those for the audit and compliance committee and the governance committee, were agreed unanimously by the FIFA Council.
"These individuals have been chosen because they are recognized, high-profile experts in their respective fields," FIFA said in a statement on Wednesday.
"Moreover, they better reflect the geographic and gender diversity that must be a part of an international organization like FIFA."
The changes to the ethics committee follow the resignation last year of reform and compliance chief Domenico Scala, who had argued that the independent committees had been undermined by the changes made by FIFA president Infantino. Infantino denied that accusation.
End of Mandates
Borbely said they had not been officially informed by FIFA of the end of their mandates and had found out only from the media. The Swiss investigator said the manner of their dismissal meant there would be no transition period.
"We worked well on a very high level with a huge volume of cases," said Borbely.
"There was no need to change the ethics committee. The only conclusion can be that this was politically intended."
The pair said that the FIFA administration had not interfered in their work prior to deciding to remove them.
Borbely and Eckert remain with an active mandate until the end of Thursday's Congress.
"I cannot tell you what we will be doing [...] but we take this mandate very seriously until the very end," said Borbely.