Gianni’s Game
FIFA president Gianni Infantino vowed to clean up the world’s most hated sports organization. Confidential documents reveal how hollow his promises were.

1 — Donald Calling

On Tuesday, February 21, 2017, Gianni Infantino, president of FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, was expecting a conversation with Donald Trump.

The matter was so sensitive that the organization’s US public relations agency e-mailed Infantino a script for the phone call, including the proper form of address: “Refer to the President as Mr. President or President Trump.” A compliment – “I admire the focus and energy you have demonstrated in your first weeks in office” – would make an appropriate opening before getting to the main point: “I want to take this opportunity to tell you that AS FIFA President I believe the United States is the best location for the next available FIFA World Cup – in 2026.”

In a second e-mail sent to Infantino a week later, an employee of the PR firm wrote that he had just spoken to Trump’s deputy chief of staff,and insisted that FIFA had to make clear to the Trump government that FIFA wanted to push the USA “as the favored nation” for the 2026 World Cup.

According to FIFA rules, the awarding of the World Cup hosting rights must be “fair and transparent.” The United States, Canada and Mexico competed jointly against Morocco as potential hosts for 2026. The US candidacy looked superior on paper, but Infantino expressed no public preference. FIFA could live with whatever the 211-strong FIFA Congress decided on June 13, 2018. “We make the best of any decision which is taken,” Infantino told the press.

The inside story was different. The PR agency’s e-mails show that behind the scenes, the preferred candidate was being schmoozed a year before the vote. Infantino would have been informed at the very least. This raises the question of how “fair and transparent” the award of the world’s most popular sports tournament to the United States, Mexico and Canada really was.

The e-mails illustrate rule No. 1 of Gianni’s Game: You need two faces – one in public, and one in private.

In response to a query, FIFA replied in writing that the award process “will likely go down as the fairest and most transparent of its kind” in the history of sport. It is, the association said, completely normal for the FIFA president to be in contact with heads of government, including candidate countries. The only time Infantino met Donald Trump to talk about the 2026 World Cup was after the award, on August 28, 2018.

FIFA made no comment regarding telephone calls between Infantino and the Trump administration before the award, nor regarding the specific content of the two e-mails.

The Trump-related e-mails represent a tiny fraction of an enormous store of data that the German magazine Der Spiegel obtained from the website Football Leaks and shared with the European Investigative Collaborations (EIC) journalists’ network. The Investigative Unit of Tamedia and Das Magazin were the Swiss partners in the analysis. The material comprises 70 million documents – 3.4 terabytes – covering secrets relating to the soccer business, clubs, associations and players’ agents. It also includes information from deep within FIFA that Infantino and his entourage did not wish to see made public, such as e-mails, memos, contracts and meeting minutes. In preparing this article, reporters additionally interviewed a dozen experts and insiders, including longtime FIFA employees.

As president, Infantino controls an asset that has grown far beyond the sport. The audience share of Russian World Cup, the FIFA chief told Donald Trump during their meeting at the White House, is “more than four billion viewers.” These four billion fans give Infantino access to virtually every power broker on every continent.

Personal contacts with the likes of Trump and Vladimir Putin are just the beginning. Football Leaks shows that when Infantino’s staff request a meeting with UN Secretary-General António Guterres, an invitation from New York arrives within days. Infantino schedules lunch with UBS CEO Sergio Ermotti by SMS. Swiss federal legislators politely reach out to his staff to ask for appointments. A meeting with the Pope is no problem. As the head of FIFA, Infantino is one of Switzerland’s most familiar icons, alongside the Matterhorn and Roger Federer.

Rock, paper, scissors: Gianni Infantino (middle) with the Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman and Wladimir Putin at the World Cup Final 2018 in Moscow.
Rock, paper, scissors: Gianni Infantino (middle) with Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and Vladimir Putin at the 2018 World Cup final in Moscow. (Image: Action Press / Dukas)

You might ask what Gianni Infantino is doing with all this power.

Speaking at the Hallenstadion in Zurich following his February 26, 2016, election to succeed Sepp Blatter, Infantino vowed to restore FIFA’s reputation and to win it new respect: “Everyone in the world will applaud us for what we will do in FIFA in the future,” he said. He also called for “zero tolerance” of corruption and bad managers, and he demanded no less of himself: “The FIFA president must always lead by example.” The association itself, he said, would simply be “the best-governed global sporting institution, full stop.”

More, better, cleaner: Gianni Infantino promised everything to everybody.

Football Leaks reveals how hollow these promises were. Officially, Infantino gushed about his 1.4 billion swiss franc distribution program, while privately describing it as an “absolute failure.” He made a show of demanding full independence for FIFA’s internal watchdogs, all the while working to strip them of their power. He stressed publicly that soccer had to steer clear of politics, yet he pushed for a highly political 25-billion-dollar deal with a mystery consortium. He announced FIFA plans to enforce the most stringent compliance rules in the world, yet he also gave a local Swiss senior prosecutor who rendered him discrete favors exclusive tickets for the Russia World Cup and the Champions League final.

As president, Infantino proved to be Janus-faced, breaking promises made to the public to secure his power within the organization. And the soccer world went along with him.

It played Gianni’s game.

2 — “An Absolute Failure”

Giovanni Vincenzo Infantino nearly died at birth on March 23, 1970, in the district hospital of Brig, a small town in the Swiss canton of Valais. Blood flown in from England and the former Yugoslavia saved his life. The boy, whom his two older sisters called “Piccolo,” grew up in a migrant family. His mother Maria ran the kiosk at the Brig train station, and his father Vincenzo worked in the station restaurant. It was from him that Gianni Infantino inherited soccer fever. According to the Rhone Zeitung newspaper, as a fourth-grader he wrote in an essay: “I’d like to be a professional soccer player. But since I’m not talented enough for that, I’ll be a soccer advocate.”

On February 29, 2016, three days after his election, the new top advocate of world soccer donned a jersey at FIFA headquarters to play a little ball with Luis Figo, Paolo Maldini and other “legends.” The ninth elected president of FIFA wore the number 9. Speaking into the reporters’ microphones, Infantino said he would “bring football back to FIFA and FIFA back to football.”

What really sticks in people’s minds, though, is the photo in the May 27, 2015, issue of the New York Times showing employees of Zurich’s five-star Baur au Lac hotel holding up a bedsheet to shield the face of a FIFA official being led away by law enforcement officers. Now the world knew that global soccer was under investigation by US anti-Mafia prosecutors. According to the US justice department, World Cup tournaments and TV rights had been sold for decades to the tune of over 150 million dollars in bribes. The United States indicted 41 officials and sports marketers. To date, 24 have pleaded guilty. Several are in prison.

FIFA is an association as defined under Article 60 of the Swiss Civil Code. It was founded to cement the rules of the game, organize the World Cup and distribute income from it to enable soccer pitches to be built in Bamako, and to provide training for referees in Beirut or junior coaches in Bern. Today, however, “FUCK FIFA” has been anonymously sprayed on the façade of Zurich’s FIFA World Football Museum, sponsors are jumping ship, and the 2015 FIFA corruption case has its own entry in Wikipedia.

In a statement to the EIC journalists’ network, the current FIFA leadership referred to the re-election of then patriarch Sepp Blatter following the Baur au Lac shocker an “absurd comedy.” Blatter refused to resign until confronted with the fact that the US and the Swiss judicial authorities would otherwise shut FIFA down for good. “The organization was both demoralized and dysfunctional. It was also hemorrhaging money.” (Blatter denies this: “FIFA was in great shape when [Infantino] took it over,” he said in an interview with the EIC.)

Being heir to the throne of so reviled an organization is no easy task.

It requires dealing successfully with two major challenges at once: patching up a tattered image, and keeping the FIFA community sufficiently happy to ensure your own reelection. The next elections would already be coming up in June 2019.

In its statement, signed simply “FIFA,” the organization gives its own president good marks: “brick by brick” he rebuilt the organization, promoted women’s soccer and organized one of the best World Cup tournaments in history in Russia, despite “unbalanced reporting, hype, hysteria and scaremongering,” wrote the FIFA in its statement. Even the cashflow is back to normal.

And what could be more important than that? “The money of FIFA is your money. It’s not the money of the FIFA president,” Infantino said in his 2016 speech at the Hallenstadion, earning spontaneous applause from the delegates. The 211 national associations were to receive 1.4 billion dollars from FIFA from 2015 to 2018, significantly more per year than during the Blatter era.

On February 27, 2017, a year and a day after the “money” promise, Infantino stood on the tarmac at Kotoka International Airport in Ghana’s capital city of Accra. The FIFA president was on a 10-day Africa tour. If he could get the continent behind him, he would have 56 votes. And Infantino hadn’t come empty-handed. “We had many people, especially in our part of the world, who are good at talking. But I like to act,” he said. Under Blatter, FIFA paid 27 million dollars a year to African countries. Infantino’s FIFA would pay out 94 million. “We’re not doing it for publicity. We do it because it’s good for football,” he said. The camera captured every word.

Infantino named his development program “Forward.” It was about not looking back, because the past is no model: the old FIFA paid out money “without control and for purely political purposes,” stated FIFA. That is no longer possible, the organization says, because stricter supervision has been introduced and the number of staff increased. Today, FIFA stated, it can supervise and control more soccer projects simultaneously.

FIFA’s Financial Report for 2017, available publicly, claimed that “Forward” was “on time and under control.” But inside the organization, the tone was quite different. The most damning observations are those made by Gianni Infantino himself. The “Forward” disbursements were so far an “absolute failure,” Infantino e-mailed his secretary general, Fatma Samoura, in July 2017. The millions were flowing too slowly. Why? Bureaucracy. Applying for money meant “long delays” and “endless questions” from “frustrated” national associations.

Infantino was pushing to pay out faster. He is a man of action, not of words.

The pressure did have some effect: the money flowed faster. But it also had adverse consequences. In autumn of 2017, FIFA’s development division began to bypass other divisions. It transferred lump sums to national associations for travel expenses without knowing exactly how the money was being used. This violated “Forward” regulations, as the heads of the legal, compliance and finance divisions criticized in a joint memo. For example, according to a leaked list, the Macau Football Association received over half a million dollars for travel expenses, some of which would only be incurred in the future, or not at all. According to the memo, advance payments of 8.5 million dollars were made to national associations in contravention of the regulations.

FIFA leadership denies this: “All payments have been made in accordance with the regulations and this has also been professionally audited.”

FIFA does carry out controls to some extent. A secret list shows that at the beginning of 2018, 38 national associations received only limited money because of missing documents, international sanctions or suspected corruption. But Infantino’s extreme “Forward” push has polarized the organization along development and compliance lines. A FIFA insider who is familiar with governance issues said: “How the ‘Forward’ millions are distributed is currently FIFA’s greatest weakness. Nobody can be sure that substantial sums are not being diverted to criminal activities.”

In February 2018, the pressure was so intense that Kjetil Siem, a Norwegian advisor close to Infantino, raised the alarm. Siem had been instructed by Infantino to frankly assess the state of FIFA in a confidential memorandum. With respect to the development division, Siem wrote: “The risk for damage is worrying, based on the way the division is operating and paying out Forward Funds. Instead of paying based on expenses and projects, the payment is done in advance.” He added: “The observed as chaotic, low knowledge, in conflict with other divisions, and no lead that anyone is proud of, or standing behind...FIFA is suffering of this fact. When FIFA is suffering, the President is suffering.”

In its statement, FIFA calls the comments “unfair” and “inaccurate,” saying that the memo reflected Siem’s “personal opinions.”

However, one FIFA insider shares Siem’s conclusion. He describes the “Forward” conflict as a symptom of a bigger problem: “Gianni places people in positions that are outwardly unassailable – seemingly ideal choices for a new FIFA. But they are all indebted to him and thus easy to control. Gianni surrounds himself with ‘yes’ people. The climate has become one of fear and silence.”

FIFA’s reaction to this observation was that “office gossip” doesn’t deserve a serious response.

The statements of other FIFA insiders corroborate this impression, however. Despite Infantino’s talent for languages (he speaks Arabic, German, English, French, Italian and Spanish), he lacks people skills, says one person. He rarely acknowledges anyone in the hallway. Another person notes that staff who were once on a first-name basis with Infantino received an e-mail telling them that the president was to be addressed by his surname. Sepp Blatter had the gift of making every cleaning lady feel that he was vital to the future of soccer, says a third: “But Gianni stands outside in the smoking area, drawing on a cigarette and staring at his smartphone.

3 — Superamiga

While the current president was touring the globe, his lieutenants in Zurich were busy clearing away the remains of the old regime. Sepp Blatter’s charitable contributions, for example: 40,000 Swiss francs for Showszene Schweiz, an association that hosts the “Prix Walo,” also known as the Swiss Oscar; 6,000 francs for the Dübendorf Rotary Club; or 120,000 francs for each edition of Zurich’s Zoofäscht charity gala. According to an internal memo, FIFA needed to “fundamentally revise” its charitable activities.

Under the code name “Project Eos” – the goddess of dawn – weekly conference calls were scheduled with US lawyers from the law firm Quinn Emanuel and auditors from Deloitte. The specialists rummage through archives and mail servers looking for legal toxic waste. They came across a 79 million francs bonus scheme involving Blatter’s inner circle. Some curiously small payments turned up, too, including an informal 3,000-franc pension to the widow of a former Swiss national coach and friend of Blatter who died in 2007.

At the same time, the investigators of the Ethics Committee were gaining in influence. FIFA’s internal watchdogs can ban for life any soccer official who has accepted an envelope containing money or offered gifts to his family. A suspended official is no longer even allowed to train a junior team.

Chief investigator Cornel Borbély, a Swiss, and chief judge Hans-Joachim Eckert, a German, both appointed under Blatter, banned dozens of officials following the raid at Baur au Lac. In so doing, they forced the organization’s leadership to overhaul itself. The two also banned Sepp Blatter and UEFA president Michel Platini because of a questionable two million francs payment.

By doing this, they disrupted the succession to the throne. Michel Platini, who was destined to succeed Blatter, could not stand for election due to his suspension in February 2016. His secretary general, a certain Gianni Infantino, took his place as an emergency candidate and won the election. Strictly speaking, then, Infantino owes his rise to the FIFA Ethics Committee. But Borbély, a former public prosecutor who was quick on the draw, would soon be investigating Infantino himself, for example, because of his private jet flights. In short: the watchdogs were getting annoying. And in spring 2017, the FIFA leadership around Infantino made a momentous decision.

In an e-mail to Alejandro Domínguez, head of the Latin American confederation Conmebol, Colombia’s football president Ramón Jesurún wrote that he knew someone, a “luxury candidate” who is “crazy about soccer” and a “superamiga.” The e-mail was forwarded to Infantino.

The “luxury candidate” was María Claudia Rojas, a Colombian lawyer and judge on the Supreme Administrative Court, specialized in bioethics and international tax law. The plan was to have her replace the aggressive Borbély as the new chief investigator.

Infantino supported her, and the FIFA Congress elected her on May 11, 2017, in Bahrain. Borbély found out by SMS on the plane to Bahrain that he and Eckert were not being put forward for reelection. The official reason was that FIFA wanted to staff its committees in a less “eurocentric” fashion. “That’s nonsense,” says former chief judge Eckert today. “We were removed because our investigations – including of Mr. Infantino himself – were independent.”

According to FIFA’s statement, in the past, four of five independent bodies were headed by Germans or Swiss, which does not necessarily reflect the diversity of a global organization. Moreover, in the past there had been no election procedure at all. María Claudia Rojas is “very well qualified” for her office. The terms of office of Cornel Borbély and Hans-Joachim Eckert expired in 2017, so her replacing them was “no great surprise.”

What sounds like a routine change of staff had far-reaching consequences ­– as if someone had removed the batteries from the alarm system. “Since Rojas took office, the quality of the investigations has deteriorated considerably”, says one insider. Football Leaks provides the relevant evidence. Since December 2017, Rojas had been aware of accusations of corruption – documented in a report by the auditors at PriceWaterhouseCoopers ­– against David Chung, head of the Oceanic Football Confederation and FIFA vice president. Chung resigned “for personal reasons” only months later when the New York Times made the report public on April 6, 2018, without the Ethics Committee having assumed any visible role in the matter.

“That’s unacceptable,” says Hans-Joachim Eckert. “We would most likely have suspended Mr. Chung at least provisionally within a few days.”

María Claudia Rojas is less reserved when it comes to enjoying privileges. She spent the entire 2018 FIFA World Cup at the Lotte luxury hotel in Moscow, where the top FIFA officials were also lodged.

However, the relevant regulations stipulate that Rojas would only be paid for the trip to the opening and final matches – unless she had to work longer on-site for FIFA. Eckert says that in 2014 he traveled to Brazil only for two meetings of the Ethics Committee and the opening match, and he did not stay at the same hotel as the FIFA leadership. “I wouldn’t have known how to justify spending the entire World Cup at the FIFA hotel,” he says.

Rojas’s resume shows that she is not specialized in corruption or criminal law. It also indicates that she does not speak English, the language most case files are written in. Leaked data show how far removed she is from the work of the internal investigators: the Ethics Committee’s Zurich secretariat examines the cases, translates the documents and writes memos suggesting what needs to be done. Rojas often signs off on them with two-line e-mails: “De acuerdo” – I agree.

With Rojas’s accession, power shifted to the Ethics Committee’s secretariat. And this is where Gianni Infantino exerted his influence. In the past, the in-house prosecutors and judges each had their own staff. “We wanted to isolate the secretariats even more, keeping the offices and IT separate, to preserve the separation of powers,” says Eckert. But Infantino merged the secretariats and installed a confidante, Mario Gallavotti, a 70-year-old Italian lawyer, at its head.

FIFA stands behind Rojas. Spanish, the organization points out, is an official FIFA language spoken by more than 400 million people worldwide. Central and South America have had their share of ethics cases, and it is helpful to have someone with Spanish knowledge in office. Even under Rojas, the Ethics Committee has blocked FIFA Council members and national association presidents. In 2018 alone 15 verdicts were passed. Rojas is in Zurich every month for a few days, FIFA says. Borbély and Eckert also had support from the secretariats.

An insider says that the problem is not the number of cases but the proximity of the new investigators to the president. Investigations against the FIFA leadership, as in the days of Borbély, are no longer possible. “Seen in this light, the Ethics Committee is dead,” says this insider.

4 — Rewriting the Laws

On August 14, 2018, the world heaped scorn on FIFA. An Associated Press journalist discovered that the organization had revised its internal code of ethics and removed the word “corruption” from it. The report fit into the narrative of an organization unwilling to reform.

But the criticism missed the point. The Football Leaks documents show that the new code was not written exclusively in the offices of the in-house ethicists, as was officially declared. Somebody else had worked on it.

Shortly before Christmas 2017, on December 17, Vassilios Skouris wrote an e-mail to Gianni Infantino. The Greek academic and former president of the European Court of Justice was the new chief judge of the Ethics Committee. “Dear Gianni,” Skouris began, “as promised, I am sending you the draft code as prepared by Rojas and myself...If you have any comments, please send that I can include them in the final text.”

Infantino replied on January 11, 2018. The new code was “truly excellent,” the changes “very positive.” But as a “good old lawyer” he could not read a regulation “without making comments and suggestions.”

Infantino then proceeded to propose amendments to 12 articles. In several cases, he suggested weakening the provisions. For example, he urged that even informal preliminary investigations should require an explicit “okay” from the chief investigator – i.e. from “superamiga” Rojas. The ethicists’ suggestion that all holders of political office be denied any function in soccer in order to more effectively separate sport and politics was rejected by Infantini as “excessive.” He suggested to differentiate on a case-by-case-basis. In the end, there was no new rule at all, the one from the old code prevailed.

There’s one more thing. Previously, FIFA was able to take over any investigation at any time when national associations failed to address local violations. “FIFA is not the ‘World Police’ with a duty to investigate and sanction anything that happens anywhere in the World,” Infantino wrote in the January 11 e-mail . He proposed that FIFA intervene only with “subsidiarity.” The new code states that ethicists must wait three months before beginning an investigation.

Hans-Joachim Eckert had already speculated publicly, without proof, that the new code bore Infantino’s signature. He calls the new waiting period “a joke”. In his day, officials were at least provisionally banned within days of coming under suspicion. “Infantino’s intervention makes a mockery of FIFA’s separation of powers. The e-mail itself is an infringement of the code.” Strictly speaking, the president should take passive note of new rules. Mark Pieth, professor of criminal law in Basel, agrees: “It is not the task of the president to draw up the details of the code himself.” Both lawyers were involved in the drafting of the latest version in 2012. Blatter, then president, did not touch “ a single word,” Eckert says.

A loss of power on the part of the watchdogs means more power for the president.

FIFA maintains that it is “entirely natural” for President Infantino, as an experienced lawyer, to engage in exchanges such as the one with Vassilios Skouris. Judge Skouris, FIFA says, would in any event never change the code of ethics against his will.

Infantino’s intervention is not visible to the outside world, neither in press releases nor in the letter explaining the new code to the regional associations. Even two weeks after Infantino’s “input,” when FIFA leadership met for an overview of the ongoing reforms, only the ethicists were mentioned as authors.

Rule No. 2 of Gianni’s game is: Get involved. But leave the formal decision making to others.

The most extreme example of this stealth tactic relates to a time when Infantino was not yet at the helm of FIFA. It involves the French club Paris Saint-Germain, a power-hungry sponsor and a very large amount of money.

5 — 7186 Percent

It was April 19, 2014, shortly before the kick-off of the Coupe de la Ligue final at the Stade de France in Paris. Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) was playing Olympique Lyonnais. The fans, who had come to see star players Zlatan Ibrahimović and Edinson Cavani, were cheering impatiently in the stands. Behind the scenes, the last act of a drama was unfolding that would shape soccer for years to come, with Gianni Infantino in the lead role.

At the time, Infantino was general secretary of UEFA, soccer’s European governing body. As a result of Football Leaks, Infantino’s dealings from that time are now coming to light and are bound to have a lasting effect on his legacy.

On that day in April, Infantino made use of his first rule: you need two faces – one in public, and one in private. So he made a secret deal with PSG. He circumvented the in-house UEFA watchdogs and gave the club the go-ahead for a cash injection of hundreds of millions of dollars from Qatar.

In so doing, Infantino broke a promise. As UEFA general secretary, he had vowed for years to take decisive action against so-called financial doping. This has become a major buzzword in modern soccer. It refers to doping clubs not with drugs like EPO, but rather with cash injections. An “injection” works in the following way. A club sells advertising space, say, on its jersey, but receives much more money in return than the sponsorship is actually worth. In other words, the club receives money that it hasn’t earned. This is unfair to other clubs that aren’t on the receiving end of such cash injections.

Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich may have been the first. Abramovich bought Britain’s Chelsea soccer club in 2003. Since then, it has become fashionable to channel billions into European clubs. Oligarchs, sheikhs and oil countrys such as Abu Dhabi and Qatar took over clubs like Manchester City, AS Monaco and even PSG.

Financial doping had a number of consequences. Clubs used the fortunes from abroad to put together all-star teams. The sudden availability of money caused transfer sums to swell. Clubs without wealthy foreign investors could no longer keep up. As a result, they fell into debt. “It’s a downward spiral,” cautioned Infantino in 2012 in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper. “If you have Messi, I have to have Ronaldo. Because I have to be bigger than you.”

In 2010, UEFA instituted “financial fair play” rules for European clubs. On the one hand, the rules were intended to ensure that clubs didn’t get too heavily into debt, an objective that has in the meanwhile been achieved as emphasized in comments made by UEFA and FIFA to the EIC. On the other hand, the rules now prohibit club owners from injecting billions into their teams through inflated advertising and sponsorship contracts.

In May 2011, Infantino told news website “I would say what is over is the sugar daddy who can put hundreds of millions in the club. This will no longer be possible.” He also promised to take action against big clubs. “You have to comply with the rules and if you do not comply with the rules there will be the ultimate sanctions.”

But why were these “sugar daddies” pumping billions into their clubs? For some it was a hobby, for others an investment. For the Qataris, who took over PSG in 2011, the move was a political one: the desert state is one of the richest countries in the world, but it is dependent on its dwindling oil reserves. It also feels threatened by its neighbor Saudi Arabia. Qatar seeks political and economic power, but also approval. The Qataris see sports as a way of getting all that.

According to a secret agreement between PSG and the Qataris, the country wanted to achieve “recognition on the international scene.” The rights to host the 2022 World Cup had been obtained. The purchase of PSG was part of a “plan” to become a “significant actor.” PSG was to become “one of the top 5 European football clubs” by 2017, according to another document from the leak. Therefore, a “Champions League team” now had to be “quickly” bought.

The idea was to funnel more than a billion euros into the club over several years, mostly to buy players. With such sums at the club’s disposal, price no longer mattered. But the documents also reveal that the plan had a problem in the form of financial fair play, that is, the rules Gianni Infantino had vowed to enforce so rigorously.

Financial fair play clearly stipulates that a club owner like Qatar cannot just inject money into a club, even by loopholes, without consideration. But in August 2012, a curious contract between the Qatar Tourism Authority and PSG suddenly materialized. The Qataris had pledged to spend an average of up to 215 million euros per year on the Paris club for five years, a total of over 1 billion euros. Qatar had even paid retroactively for the 2011/2012 season, when the contract was not yet in force.

PSG offered the Qataris very little in return, neither jersey nor perimeter advertising. The club had only to make itself available for unspecified “promotional activities” and allow Qatar to use its name.

A more obvious breach of the fair play rules seems hard to imagine, and the Qataris knew it. Football Leaks shows how PSG’s leadership discussed a range of defense strategies in the event that UEFA took action against the advertising contract – which it did.

Within UEFA, a special investigatory chamber is responsible for infringements against financial fair play. The chamber had been monitoring PSG since 2013, and UEFA had commissioned half a dozen systematic reports to determine whether the Paris club was providing fair compensation for the millions paid, or whether Qatar was simply engaged in financial doping. The data leak has made these reports public for the first time. For PSG, they are devastating.

In a 13-page report, Takis Tridimas, an authority on competition law, wrote that it was “clear” that the sums of money flowing to PSG through this agreement were “beyond that which would be permissible under the Financial Fair Play Rules.” There are even “very strong indications” that the contract was expressly “designed to circumvent the Fair Play Rules.” Mark Hoskins, an expert at the English law firm Brick Court Chambers, reached the same conclusion.

The pressure on PSG was growing. A summit meeting was held with Gianni Infantino, UEFA president Michel Platini and Nasser Al-Khelaifi, the Qatari head of PSG. On Thursday, February 27, 2014, they met in Nyon on Lake Geneva. According to insiders, Al-Khelaifi immediately began to threaten the UEFA bosses. It would certainly not be in the interest of UEFA to go against the state of Qatar, he said.

What would Infantino do? He knew that the Qatar-Paris agreement was incompatible with the rules of fair play. He also knew that the proceedings were in the hands of the investigatory chamber, which is “totally independent,” as Infantino himself had stated several times. He was not allowed to intervene. But the PSG side demanded that Platini and Infantino negotiate an agreement directly with the Paris club, which would then be taken over by the chamber. And, for the first time, Infantino gave in. He began dealing. From March 10, 2014, onward, Infantino was negotiating regularly and secretly with PSG and Al-Khelaifi.

To the world outside, however, he was still promising to enforce fair play. The day after the meeting in Nyon, Infantino appeared before the media and boldly asserted that UEFA was taking the “lead role” in “protecting the game on this continent” against the “greed, reckless spending and financial insanity” of some clubs.

In March the last and most damning report on the PSG contract arrived. Octagon, the world’s top sports marketing consultancy, dissected the Doha deal in a 116-page analysis. In comparison to contracts with eight leading clubs, such as Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, the fee paid by the Qataris was 7186% above the expected maximum value for such services. What Qatar got from PSG was not worth an average of 215 million euros per year, as the contract stated, but a mere 2.78 million. The report concluded that the investment was “hugely inflated” and thus de facto financial doping.

Extract from the Octagon analysis: the payments by the Qataris are 7186 percent above the expected maximum value for such services
Extract from the Octagon analysis: the payments by the Qataris are 7186 percent above the expected maximum value for such services

Today, PSG rebuts this assessment. The club maintains that the contract has to do with “nation branding.” As such, it follows a strategy whose ultimate aim is to develop the image of Qatar. That is what constitutes the value of the massive investment. Octagon also compared the Qatari contract with long-term strategic partnerships, such as with the International Olympic Committee, and concluded that even under this consideration, the Qatar contract was still “hugely inflated.”

In other words, in April 2014, Infantino was fully equipped to stop what he himself called “greed, and reckless spending.” His administration needed only to send the Octagon report to PSG, end the secret negotiations and let the in-house investigatory chamber do its work. In the meanwhile, the experts themselves came to the conclusion that the Qatari contract was in grave violation of the rules. Surprisingly, however, neither the chamber’s preliminary conclusion nor any of the reports reached PSG, including Octagon’s evaluation. Today the club denies ever having heard of it. Why the documents were kept under wraps is uncertain. However, what is clear is that Infantino agreed to another meeting with PSG leaders – the meeting that took place on Saturday, April 19, 2014, the day of the Coupe de la Ligue final.

According to documents from Football Leaks, Infantino struck a deal at that meeting. Instead of 2.78 million euros per year (the value the experts assigned to the contract), he agreed to PSG receiving 100 million euros per year from Qatar – in effect giving his blessing to financial doping.

In response to a query, UEFA stated that such agreements are made with clubs when there is a “sufficiently reliable” business plan that enables the club to become compliant again in the future. In fact, PSG had to promise Infantino that the contract with the Qataris would be extended. In earlier rounds of negotiations, UEFA had virtually begged the Parisians to make the contract more credible. But the longform contract promised by PSG that evening would only be signed years later and remains controversial. Yet Infantino was accepting cash injections for Paris from Qatar worth hundreds of millions of euros, even over the last few years.

That Saturday, the PSG bosses were celebrating a major victory. Winning the cup final was almost incidental. The two goals of the evening were scored by Edinson Cavani, the Uruguayan star who had come to Paris for the record sum of 64 million euros – with the help of cash injections that Infantino simply waved through this day.

The question on everyone’s mind is why Infantino knuckled under, and what prompted his duplicity. Following the Paris deal, UEFA circulated an internal letter with a list of 13 arguments explaining why the agreement was “by no means a ‘capitulation’” to PSG. On the contrary, it was “reasonable” not to simply let the biggest clubs and the best players drop out of the Champions League. For one thing was clear: had there been rigorous implementation of the fair play rules, PSG could have been banned from the Champions League – which UEFA would obviously go to great lengths to avoid. But it is also the case that UEFA has on several occasions come down hard on clubs without superrich Middle Eastern sponsors: Galatasaray Istanbul, Red Star Belgrade and others have all been banned from the Champions League for violations of the fair play rules.

FIFA, which responded for Gianni Infantino to a query, did not comment on the details of his PSG negotiations and the role he played there. The federation did say, however, that the UEFA general secretary is allowed to assist in such agreements in order to “find solutions.” This also included “discussions” and “meetings.” UEFA describes the role of Infantino’s administration in such negotiations quite differently. They are only allowed to provide infrastructure, personnel, logistical support and the like. Agreements are not offered by the general secretary, but by the investigatory chamber. This “preserves the independence” of the chamber. Infantino emphasized through FIFA that ultimately, of course, the chamber is solely responsible for agreements.


In that case Brian Quinn, then chairman of the investigatory chamber, was officially responsible for approving the PSG agreement. But at a crucial meeting on May 2, 2014, Quinn refused to sign the result of Infantino’s negotiations. According to a person familiar with the process, Quinn said the agreement was “too lenient” given the degree to which PSG and another club were in breach. He resigned during the meeting. Another member of the commission, Umberto Lago, had to be appointed chairman at the meeting. Finally, they had someone who signed it.

The Paris club states, “The way PSG adhered to Financial Fair Play was exemplary. We have always followed the rules, even as they have changed.”

What Quinn had foreseen eventually transpired: Infantino’s agreement with PSG became a precedent with devastating effect. UEFA’s measures against financial doping by rich patrons lost much of their bite. In the years that followed, new records were set for player salaries and transfer sums. PSG was certainly not deterred. Last year, the Parisians bought two strikers, Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior (known simply as Neymar) and Kylian Mbappé, for over 400 million euros. These are the most expensive transfers in the history of soccer. UEFA, now under the new leadership of Aleksander Čeferin, has resumed investigations. So far without result.

And Gianni Infantino? Nothing stuck to him. Indeed, two years after the Paris deal he became the most powerful man in soccer. And Football Leaks has now shown that at FIFA, Infantino may be on the verge of selling out soccer for even higher stakes. This time it’s not a single club that is in play, but FIFA itself.

Mbappé and Neymar during a soccer game
Financial Doping?: Mbappé (180 million euros) and Neymar (220 million euros). (Photo: Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)

6 — Declaring War

Aleksander Čeferin delivered his lines in measured tones, without naming any names. “Football is not for sale,” said the Slovenian UEFA president in an address to members of the EU Council for Education, Youth, Culture and Sport in Brussels. “I cannot accept that some people, some of our colleagues, who are blinded by the pursuit of profit, are considering to sell the soul of football tournaments to nebulous private funds.”

Čeferin’s speech was indirectly targeted at a former colleague. Someone who had received almost one million euros from UEFA for the election campaign for the FIFA presidency. Someone Čeferin had hoped to work closely with. And someone whom he was now accusing of “highly cynical and ruthless mercantilism.”

The date was May 23, 2018, and Aleksander Čeferin had just declared war on Gianni Infantino.

The main reason for the rift was an initiative that the FIFA head honcho had introduced secretly and in haste. Codenamed “Project Trophy,” the idea was to launch two new soccer tournaments, for which a mystery consortium was prepared to pay up to 25 billion dollars.

Shortly before Čeferin’s attack, the New York Times published the preliminary details of Infantino’s billion-dollar plans. Documents now show how a small circle of influential businessmen drove the project forward at breakneck speed and tried to gain control of parts of the soccer enterprise. Even Sepp Blatter warned: “25 billion for a piece of the big cake? That’s wrong! You can not sell out football.”

The story begins in December 2017. The FIFA Club World Cup was being held in the United Arab Emirates. Gianni Infantino’s personal guest list contained several names that at first glance had no obvious connection with soccer. Among them were three ex-bankers from Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs, who were now running their own finance company, called Centricus.

On the final day of the Club World Cup, a Centricus representative met FIFA general secretary Fatma Samoura. He made her an outrageous offer: he proposed to revolutionize the previously little known Club World Cup and raise up to two billion dollars per tournament.

In a letter dated January 22, 2018, FIFA authorized Centricus to start looking for investors. Only one month later, at a secret meeting at Le Bourget airport in Paris, a major investor – the Japanese tech group SoftBank, with whom Centricus had previously arranged billion-dollar deals – was sitting at the negotiating table.

But now the stakes included not just a new Club World Cup but also a second tournament: a league of all the national teams in the world, held every two years, with over 700 matches. Part of the deal would be a new joint venture between FIFA and investors: the FIFA Football Digital Fund.

The joint venture would serve to run the new tournaments. What’s more, it would have the exclusive agreement to create a “FIFA digital ecosystem” with lucrative content, including FIFA eSports and TV channels, as well as the entire archive of the World Football Association. Later, the Football Digital Fund would be the “vehicle for consolidation of all FIFA content” – or so it says in the secret proposal from Centricus and SoftBank.

But what exactly did that mean? Even FIFA officials were wondering whether FIFA would be giving away the archival images of Diego Maradona’s “hand of God” goal at the 1986 World Cup.

On March 16, the FIFA Council, traditionally not known for taking tough stances, put the brakes on “Project Trophy” for the first time. Infantino moved quickly to calm the situation. In a letter to council members, he assured them that FIFA would retain control of the joint venture and all rights. But important information was missing from the 10-page letter, including the names of investors.

Many soccer officials remained wary. “The identity of the investors needs to be revealed,” UEFA boss Čeferin stated in a letter to Infantino dated May 8, 2018. Čeferin felt that Infantino had ignored him and simply presented him with a fait accompli. The fact was that Infantino had teamed up with an investor that had not followed normal public tender procedures but had made its bid in backroom dealings. An investor who held out the lure of unimaginable sums, offering to pay up to three billion dollars for every Club World Cup and up to two billion for every national league – a total of 25 billion dollars over 12 years. And an investor who enjoyed the best possible relations with Saudi Arabia, which became clear when the name “SoftBank” was leaked.

Cover page of the Project Trophy papers
The Football Digital Fund as a vehicle for “consolidate[ing] the entire FIFA content.” FIFA officials wonder if it means giving away the archival photos of Maradona’s “Hand of God” goal.

SoftBank manages the largest private equity fund in the world. Its most important investor, in turn, is a Saudi sovereign wealth fund that contributed 45 out of a total of 93 billion dollars of the SoftBank fund’s capital. The kingdom is doing everything it can to gain influence on the international sports stage. Centricus helped set up the SoftBank fund in 2016 and, by its own account, acquired the Saudi 45 billion-dollar share. The financiers who brought SoftBank and the Saudi sovereign wealth fund together now also serve as the link between SoftBank and FIFA.

A FIFA insider says: “Saudi Arabia’s proximity to ‘Project Trophy’ is obvious. There is a danger that FIFA will indirectly sell its core dossiers to Saudi Arabia.” Supporting this view is the fact that Infantino recently visited the Saudi royal family three times to discuss “cooperations,” twice in December 2017 and once in May 2018. It is highly unusual for a FIFA president to visit a country’s rulers so often over such a short period.

To date, Infantino has not succeeded in eliminating mistrust. “We do not understand the urgency and recklessness with which FIFA is acting on these issues,” wrote the influential World Leagues Forum in a letter to Infantino on October 22, 2018. A week ago, the FIFA Council curbed its president once again. Instead of approving the two new tournaments, as requested by Infantino, the council decided to establish a task force to draw up proposals for the tournaments by next March. And for the first time Infantino spoke of a “consultation process.” In other words, back to square one. The lack of transparency was simply too great.

Centricus, SoftBank, the Saudi sovereign wealth fund and the Saudi General Sports Authority left questions about “Project Trophy” unanswered. According to FIFA, it makes sense to discuss financing possibilities for new soccer competitions: “If the FIFA president and administration did not examine such matters then they would not be doing their job.”

Following the council meeting at the end of October, Infantino faced the assembled world press. The investor was still on board, he explained, without giving any name. A sovereign wealth fund? No, he said, no such fund would be involved.

7 — In dubio pro amigo

At first glance, the photo looks like an ordinary selfie. Two football fans snapping a picture of themselves in the Moscow Olympic Stadium on the evening of July 1, 2018, when Russia was hosting Spain in the round of 16 at the World Cup.

But who are these people? The man on the right is King Felipe VI of Spain. The man on the left is Rinaldo Arnold, senior prosecutor for the Upper Valais region in western Switzerland and president of the Brig-Glis soccer club. Arnold uploaded the photo to his Facebook page with the comment: “The King of Spain was also in Russia today for the match!” The post got 164 likes.

Screenshot of a Facebook post by Rinaldo Arnold with King Felipe VI from Spain
Selfie from the VIP section.

But how does a Swiss law enforcement official end up in the VIP section of the World Cup round of 16, which is inaccessible to normal mortals? The answer is a relationship forged in Brig. Gianni Infantino invited Rinaldo Arnold to Moscow. FIFA insiders have seen the prosecutor already at the World Cup match between Switzerland and Costa Rica in Nizhny Novgorod, and at the 2016 FIFA Congress in Mexico. Arnold on the other hand picked up the phone to informally collect information for Infantino from the Swiss attorney general’s office as the authorities pressed ahead with their soccer investigations.

The two Swiss have known each other since they were teenagers. Both studied law, Arnold in Bern and Infantino in Fribourg. Both love soccer. Neither is exactly renowned for his skill – they occasionally play together in the lowly fifth league. Their strength is their off-pitch game. Arnold presides over the Brig-Glis soccer club, and Infantino founded the Folgore (“Lightning”) club – a team of “secondos” (second-generation Swiss residents without citizenship), that soon became part of the larger club Brig-Glis. The paths of the two men then seemed to diverge. Infantino worked at the Centre for Sport Studies in Neuchâtel before climbing his way up to general secretary at UEFA. Arnold joined the administration for the canton of Valais.

But they didn’t lose track of each other. When Infantino ran for president of FIFA, Arnold wrote a letter to the editor of the Walliser Bote newspaper: “His focus is soccer and thus sports; not power, money and corruption.” After Infantino was elected president, the two got together to organize “Gianni’s Game” in Brig – part friendly tournament, part state reception for the new head of FIFA. Italian soccer hero Gigi Buffon was there, Maradona was there, Trezeguet was there. Some 4,500 spectators watched Arnold play for Team Switzerland and Infantino play for all three teams – Italy, Switzerland and World. “That’s the story of my life, from Italy to Switzerland to the world,” Infantino said in interviews following the tournament, with Arnold beside him.

That was the public side of their friendship.

On the nonpublic side, Infantino provided Arnold Arnold with exclusive tickets. In an e-mail dated May 25, 2016, Arnold wrote Infantino: “Thank you very much for the tickets for Champions League final. My younger son will go with my wife because I have to attend a soccer club event.”

Two weeks earlier, Infantino had cleared the way for Arnold to travel to the FIFA Congress in Mexico City. “I would like to thank you once again for the invitation to Mexico. It was interesting and exciting,” wrote Arnold from his official e-mail address at the Valais public prosecutor’s office. The tone was familiar: “Ciao Capo,” Arnold started one e-mail.

The favors worked both ways.

When Infantino was in trouble, Arnold was there. On April 6, 2016, a few weeks before the Mexico Congress, prosecutors from the Swiss attorney general’s office in Bern arrived at UEFA headquarters in Nyon. The federal investigators were looking for evidence. The Panama Papers leak had brought to light conspicuous UEFA TV contracts that were co-signed by Gianni Infantino.

The attorney general’s office opened an investigation against unknown persons. Not against Infantino himself, but since he had co-signed contracts, his name immediately made it into the press. That same evening, Infantino wrote to Arnold. Arnold’s reply suggests that he had contacted the attorney general’s office to obtain information – and then offered Infantino his help: “If you like, I’ll see whether I can try to get the attorney general’s office to issue a press release saying that no proceedings are underway against you.”

Arnold went even further: he proposed considering "whether we/you should file a criminal complaint against unknown persons for defamation.” And he offered to accompany Infantino to a meeting with the federal prosecutors, “if this is not a problem for you and your head lawyer.”

It wouldn’t have been the first meeting. A few weeks earlier, Arnold had organized a confidential meeting between Infantino and Michael Lauber, the Swiss attorney general. After the Baur au Lac arrests, federal prosecutors were now conducting 25 FIFA-related investigations, the one against Sepp Blatter being the most famous. FIFA is named as a injured party in these cases.

On March 22, 2016, Lauber and Infantino met at the opulent Schweizerhof hotel in Bern. The attorney general’s office confirms the meeting, explaining that “the one-hour meeting served the general purpose of discussing the complex of investigations into soccer (...) and clarifying FIFA’s position as both plaintiff and injured party.” The attorney general was accompanied by his head of external relations, André Marty. Gianni Infantino, on the other hand, arrived not with an in-house lawyer or an external counsel with knowledge of the 25 proceedings, but rather with Rinaldo Arnold.

In other words: Arnold provided Infantino with shadow counseling. His status as a senior prosecutor may have been of some help when talking to the attorney general’s office. But why did he do that? Why did he get involved? His reasoning is not immediately clear – however, at the end of the May 25, 2016, e-mail, Arnold wrote: “P.S: If your new secretary general still needs a deputy, I sincerely recommend myself... ☺.”

As of yet, no transfer has taken place. Arnold is still working as senior public prosecutor. Meanwhile, the criminal proceedings against unknown persons for the TV contracts have been dropped. The suspicions raised by the attorney general’s office have not been substantiated.

Arnold’s interference in Bern, on the other hand, hasn’t been subject to scrutiny. FIFA confirms that Infantino invited Arnold as a “personal acquaintance” to events and tournaments. Arnold did not comment on whether he paid for some or all of his trips and tickets himself. He writes: “I maintain purely private contact with Mr. Infantino. He has been a friend of mine for years. Our relationship has nothing to do with my professional activity. I have never acted as senior prosecutor in connection with Mr. Infantino.”

Mark Pieth, professor of criminal law, disagrees: “I see two problems as far as the senior public prosecutor is concerned: One, he accepts invitations from Infantino. Two, he organizes a meeting between Infantino and the attorney general, which he was able to arrange more easily than a private person due to his official function. And he does it right around the time of a specific investigation. This raises serious questions about whether he accepted favors in an official capacity.”

Supervision of public prosecutors is the responsibility of the top-level investigator in the canton of Valais, prosecutor-general Nicolas Dubuis. He responded that Rinaldo Arnold had assured him that all contacts with Gianni Infantino were “purely private in nature.” In a second e-mail he added that the management committee of the public prosecutor’s office would be dealing with the matter at its next meeting.

The Arnold case illustrates rule No. 3 of Gianni’s game: in dubio pro amigo. You know each other, you help each other, you solve problems among yourselves. This approach is nothing new: it was Sepp Blatter’s recipe for success.

To understand why the actors may change though the methods do not, you have to go to Tuscany – more specifically, to Florence.

8 — Gentlemen’s Clubs

Miguel Poiares Maduro opens the door to his penthouse in downtown Florence. A grand piano takes up half of his living room – “it has been out of tune for months,” he says. Other things are more important.

Football policy, for example. Maduro, a Portuguese law professor, joined FIFA in 2016 to help the organization deal with the fallout from the Blatter era. Maduro had been recruited by Gianni Infantino. At his request, Maduro took over the chair of the Governance Committee. His job was to screen candidates for FIFA offices, monitor elections and propose new rules.

Less than a year later he was gone. Too many big shots had complained about his interference. When his committee refused to allow Russian deputy prime minister Vitaly Mutko to be reelected to the FIFA Council, Infantino applied pressure. In football “people believe that the independent bodies are controlled by the president,” Maduro says. He resisted, Mutko was barred from re-election, Maduro was dismissed. The president and the professor never spoke again.

Football, Maduro says, is trapped in a “political cartel.” According to him, in theory FIFA is built democratically from the bottom up. In reality, however, the president exercises power from the top down. It’s too easy to keep the small electorate quiet with subsidies and well-paid posts. And then there’s the culture. In the 1970s, sports turned into a multibillion-dollar business, but many associations were unable to keep up and often remained trapped in amateurish “gentlemen’s clubs” structures.

Some in the US Department of Justice say that Switzerland is responsible for imposing stricter laws on FIFA and other sports organizations. But the country is too small for that, says Maduro. If Switzerland were to establish rules, FIFA would simply move away. Consequently, Maduro is calling for the EU to intervene, for example, through a new authority that would monitor all sports organizations. But EU parliamentary elections are scheduled in May 2019 – “I think it’s very unlikely that any step will be taken until then.” And afterwards? “We’ll see.”

If this “political cartel” is so strong, how could Infantino have kept his promises at all? In other words: Was the game lost before it began?

None of the FIFA specialists interviewed for this article had a quick answer to this question. Some eventually said that Infantino had some achievements under his belt, that he brought FIFA out of its deepest crisis, stabilized it, and successfully organized the World Cup in Russia. But by what means, others ask – secret deals and promises of money? He could have changed the game, he could have insisted on a more open culture. “That would have caused an earthquake, but in the end football would have adapted,” says one official.

Miguel Maduro thinks Infantino should have pushed harder for change, even if that meant risking his non-reelection in 2019. “But it is easy for me,” says Maduro, “I don’t depend on football. I haven’t made career in football. My life is not football.”

9 — Epilogue

During “Gianni’s Game” in Brig, Gianni Infantino is awarded a penalty. It’s Switzerland’s match against the world’s best. Infantino sets up the ball, he wants to take the shot himself.

A penalty is the easiest thing in football. And the hardest. If you aim precisely enough, you score. A penalty can be a turning point, it can tip the game. Or not.

As FIFA president, Infantino has created just such an opportunity for himself. His election can be seen as a penalty, a chance to turn the game of world football around. In Brig, Giovanni Vincenzo Infantino takes a few steps and kicks the ball right down the center. Right into the keeper’s hands.

Here, it’s still all about the game: Children playing in front of the ruins of the Grande Hotel Beira in Mozambique. (Photo: Juan Manuel Castro Prieto/Agence Vu/Keystone)
Children playing in front of the ruins of the Grande Hotel Beira in Mozambique.
Christian Brönnimann
Mario Stäuble
Oliver Zihlmann
Mikael Krogerus
IllustrationGregory Gilbert-Lodge
Online production and programmingKaspar Manz
TranslationGiselle Weiss
Portrait image sourcesAFP(2); Bandar Al-Jaloud/AFP/Saudi Royal Palace; Getty Images (3); Imago (2); Reuters; Ullstein Bild; Fifa
Published02.11.2018, 17:30 Uhr