Liam Morgan

In many ways, the writing was on the wall as early as Monday (May 8).

Many would perhaps argue it had been long before FIFA’s Congress met for a crucial week of meetings here in Bahrain.

The membership of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) had the opportunity, however, to lay the foundation for a week of optimism for FIFA, an organisation still battling to rid itself of its tainted and troubled past, when they staged their own Congress.

High on the agenda was the elections for the AFC’s representatives on FIFA’s all-powerful ruling Council. The withdrawal of Kuwait's Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, the key sporting powerbroker who resigned from all of his football roles following an alleged link to the ongoing criminal investigation in the United States, from the race meant the first vote was a formality. Three candidates for three positions. Simple.

We thought the vote for the place reserved for a woman might be, too. Four officials initially stood before two - North Korea's Han Un Gyong and Susan Shalabi Molano of Palestine - pulled out of the running on the morning of the Congress at the plush five-star Four Seasons Hotel.

That left little-known Bangladesh Mahfuza Akhter Kiron up against women’s football campaigner Moya Dodd, the Australian who was a co-opted member of the old FIFA Executive Committee from 2013 to 2016.

In a result which epitomises the way FIFA is run under current President Gianni Infantino, Kiron won 27-17.

When asked by a journalist after the Congress, Kiron did not know who the current women’s world champions were. She did not even have a manifesto, or at least never released it publicly.

The woman she had beaten was a firm advocate of the game, a prominent figure in the region and someone who is trusted and well-respected. All the speculation points to the fact that FIFA’s inner circle see her as a threat as the reason behind her surprise defeat.

It may have been a minor story to those not so entrenched in the politics of the organisation but it nevertheless set the tone for another tumultuous week for Infantino and the governing body he so proudly declares is free of crisis.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino used his speech at the Congress to attack what he called
FIFA President Gianni Infantino used his speech at the Congress to attack what he called "fake news" - a term popularised by Donald Trump ©Getty Images

The Swiss, whose performance at the Congress here on Thursday (May 11), echoed that of a certain President of the United States and was doused with Trumpian rhetoric, has been all-too willing to herald the new FIFA.

But, like his American counterpart, he struggles to find the evidence to back up his claims.

After attacking the media in his opening speech, where he called recent criticism of his organisation "fake news" and then made the audacious statement that "FIFA bashing" had become a "national sport in some countries", he could not come up with any proof.

"Generally, it is my feeling," he said when questioned in his press conference afterwards. 

Sound familiar?

Infantino then had the temerity to declare that the crisis was over, as he had in Mexico City last year, before he attempted to hammer home his point that FIFA was a "democracy not a dictatorship".

In this regard, his recent actions do not exactly fit the bill. After all, here is a man who, according to one of his own Council members, was responsible for ousting ethics chiefs Hans-Joachim Eckert and Cornel Borbély.

Here is a man who refused to allow the Congress to vote on the contentious Israel-Palestine issue, instead deciding it was the job of the 37-member ruling Council to settle the dispute.

Here is a man who got rid of Portuguese politician Miguel Maduro, the very official hand-picked by Infantino to steer the FIFA ship into calmer water, as head of the Governance Committee after just a year of service.

When asked to respond to accusations he was undemocratic, Infantino pointed to the fact that every proposal at the Congress had been passed with a huge majority. What the FIFA President maybe does not realise is that actually has the opposite effect as it only goes to demonstrate the sheer power, influence and sway he now has over the membership.

All of the members turn up, receive their per diems and seemingly vote in favour of proposals at will, with next to no deliberation or scrutiny.

It also shows how FIFA’s 211 Member Associations are more than willing to follow his lead. There may as well not have been a Congress at all - the Council had already made the key decisions two days previously and none of the motions raised at the annual meeting were questioned by any of the nations present.

There were no interventions from the members, save for the heated and emotional words of Palestine Football Association President Jibril Rajoub and the response from Israeli counterpart Ofer Eini. Their silence was deafening and told its own story.

Palestine Football Association President Jibril Rajoub delivered an emotional address to the FIFA Congress ©Getty Images
Palestine Football Association President Jibril Rajoub delivered an emotional address to the FIFA Congress ©Getty Images

Rajoub’s lawyer even went as far as saying Infantino had been "unconstitutional" in his decision to not allow the Congress to vote on the ongoing dispute between his country and Israel. A similar point was raised by Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, the Jordanian Football Association head who unsuccessfully stood against Infantino last year.

There are suggestions he will challenge Infantino again in 2019 but Prince Ali nevertheless had strong comments to say about how, despite everything the Swiss has said, the organisation had barely changed at all since the dark days of Sepp Blatter.

"It is fairly obvious that a lot of things have not changed," he said.

"I am not going to judge anyone but what I will say is that the system, the way business is are conducted is the same.

"I don’t see the refreshing change, the openness, the transparency that everybody talks about really taking effect on the ground."

Transparency had already been in short supply when the FIFA Council members refused to talk to the media after their meeting on Tuesday (May 9). When it comes to the way Eckert and Borbély were dealt with, it was eradicated completely.

The decision drew yet more comparisons with Trump as he has also fired those who have been investigating him. Infantino, remember, caught the eye of the Ethics Committee last year following expense claims which featured a running machine as well as private jet trips.

Infantino is technically right when he says the German and the Swiss - the now former heads of the Investigatory and Adjudicatory Chambers respectively - had come to the end of their mandates.

But, given their role in bringing down numerous corrupt officials within FIFA, including Blatter and former secretary general Jérôme Valcke, they were surely worth retaining and they both wanted to continue. Infantino saw it differently.

The FIFA President gave little explanation as to why they were ousted from their role, which involved exposing and sanctioning those involved in the very malfeasance that brought the governing body to its knees.

"I have no issue with either Eckert or Borbély, everything is open, clear and free," Infantino said.

"What happened is a simple question of procedure in the sense that mandates come to an end."

Yet the way in which he orchestrated the move, just as he had done last year when removing Audit and Compliance Committee chairman Domenico Scala - who had cast doubt on the independence of the committees when Infantino snuck through a resolution which gave the Council the power to hire and fire at entirely their discretion - was ruthless in its execution.

Hans-Joachim Eckert and Cornel Borbély claimed their controversial removal by Gianni Infantino as FIFA ethics chiefs was
Hans-Joachim Eckert and Cornel Borbély claimed their controversial removal by Gianni Infantino as FIFA ethics chiefs was "de facto the end of the reform process" ©Getty Images

Little did Eckert or Borbély know it, but their fate had already been sealed before they boarded their plane bound for Bahrain. When they landed on Tuesday, they received notification that they were out of their jobs through the media release from FIFA’s press department.

The two released a strongly-worded statement, claiming that their removal was "de facto the end of the reform process" and was "politically-motivated", before they had even more to say at a hastily-arranged press conference the following day.

Borbély gave us all a headline figure when he revealed "hundreds of cases" were still being investigated, some involving senior officials, while they both warned their departure would hinder the fight against corruption and would cause a delay to ongoing cases.

How will their hand-selected replacements fare? The in-trays of Colombia's Maria Claudia Rojas, who has taken over from Borbély, and Eckert’s replacement Vassilios Skouris, the Greek who is a former President of the European Court of Justice, are stacked up already and, with "no transition period" as claimed by Borbély, they might find themselves up against it.

They are also likely to be met with the same hurdles, obstacles and resistance from within the FIFA leadership that Eckert and Borbély were faced with. Rumours are that they felt some officials were deliberately standing in their way of doing their job and that the internal pressure was immense.

Both Rojas and Skouris, whose mandates began yesterday, boast impressive resumes and, as FIFA Council member Victor Montagliani told me, are not exactly "mincemeat".

They will now hope to be the bastions of change, the pillars of a new way of rooting out the wrongdoing which has been engrained in FIFA for decades.

And they will hope that, when their own mandates come to an end, they receive a more genial parting gift than Infantino handed to Eckert and Borbély.

The performance of Gianni Infantino at the FIFA Congress in Bahrain drew comparisons with Donald Trump, the newly-elected President of the United States ©Getty Images
The performance of Gianni Infantino at the FIFA Congress in Bahrain drew comparisons with Donald Trump, the newly-elected President of the United States ©Getty Images

"In the past many highly-paid experts, paid millions, have been hired by FIFA to help reform FIFA," Infantino said. 

"Let me ask you, what did they do?

"They simply rubber-stamped a sick and corrupt system.

"Where were all these self-proclaimed gurus and experts? 

"They all miserably failed. 

"I will, we will, not accept good governance lessons from any individuals who miserably failed to protect football."

While not mentioning any official directly, the message from Infantino was clear; the previous heads of the five Independent Committees within FIFA had not delivered. At all.

Only one - Slovenian Tomaž Vesel - was kept on in his position. The other four are all gone, instantly erased from FIFA's records. Out with the old, in with the new.

In fairness to Infantino, there are changes he has made for the better. But the past week suggests, worryingly, that a lot remains the same.