«I find no other way to describe FIFA’s approach to the principle of political neutrality than shocking»

Former chair of the independent governance committee Miguel Maduro was hired by Gianni Infantino to “clean up” the mess and corruption at FIFA. Less than a year later, he was fired by the same man.

By Pål Ødegård

Josimar: In your testimony to the British Parliament, the most striking revelation you made was undoubtedly the lengths the FIFA leadership went to keep Vitaly Mutko eligible. You also said this was the only time the FIFA president actively tried to persuade you to change your mind. In addition to that, the secretary general took along the chairman of the Audit & Compliance Committee to do the same. What does this say about the level of Russian influence of the international football governing bodies?

Maduro: I do not know and it would not be appropriate for me to speculate. In answering the questions of the British members of parliament I described the contacts I received from FIFA officials and the concerns they expressed but I have no information on the exact reasons for those concerns. I am simply not in a position to know with certainty what exactly might have determined the actions of those FIFA officials in that case.

*Josimar: FIFA’s secretary general Fatma Samoura brought along the chairman of the Audit & Compliance Committee, Tomaz Vesel, to try to influence your decision on Valery Mutko. What is your opinion regarding the fact that an independent chairman did this?

*Maduro: I think it speaks for itself without me having to add anything else. I will just use the opportunity to answer to Dr Vesel’s criticism, following my participation in the House of Commons parliamentary inquiry, that I should not have made these facts public. Firstly, the problem is not in making such facts public but in the facts themselves. Not to understand this says a lot about the extent to which the culture I criticize is deeply embedded in FIFA, including in some of its supposedly independent bodies. Secondly, it is the duty of any person, and particularly those who have occupied positions of responsibility such as myself or Dr Vesel, to fully cooperate with parliaments and answer truthfully to any question asked. To suggest otherwise is simply unacceptable in my view.

Josimar: In your mandate, your committee’s most noteworthy task was to check the eligibility of candidates for key positions. Did you feel you had adequate tools for this? Candidates filled out a form where they were supposed to mention any possible conflict of interest, for example. How easy was it to check what they put on the form was true or not?

Maduro: For the most part I believe we had appropriate tools for that task. We could, in particular, compare what they answered in the questionnaire with the information gathered in the investigative report. And when doubts emerged, we could address questions and requests for additional information on the candidates. It is true that in several cases doubts remained that without investigative powers we could not clarify, but that is the difference between an eligibility test and an ethics or judicial inquiry. The eligibility test has to be made in a very short period of time, notably in the case of elections, and it’s an overall and prima facie assessment of a candidate and not a judicial decision. For this reason it is always more superficial than a judicial or ethics inquiry and must also take into account that it’s always a limit imposed on someone’s rights. In cases where we had doubts, but no concrete evidence to exclude someone, and no instruments in the context of this process to investigate, what we did was to forward that information to the ethics committee, in order for them to start an investigation. In the same way, we always asked the ethics committee for any past or ongoing investigations on any of the candidates.  This cooperation, which certainly worked well while Mr Borbély and I chaired the committees, was crucial in light of the different tasks of both committees as part of the broader and common goal of protecting the integrity and ethical standards at FIFA.

Josimar: You noted in the House of Commons hearing that FIFA were too lax letting government officials take positions at local level. When you tried to point this out, many simply said they wouldn’t comply. Did you feel that the FIFA administration took this seriously? That there are so many officials with positions at their local governments, how do you think this affects FIFA

Maduro: I find no other way to describe FIFA’s approach to the principle of political neutrality than shocking. How else to describe a practice that one day suspends a football association because the government of that country requested it to do something, but on a different day does not find any problem in a government’s minister being the president of a football association? It is obviously much easier for a government to determine the practices of a football association by having a minister president of that association. The code of ethics is clear that all football officials have to be neutral with respect to governmental organizations. A minister, by definition, cannot be neutral with respect to his or her government. In addition, the interests of that government involve many issues of other countries that football organizations might get involved in and having government officials as football officials risks contaminating football organizations with the controversies those governments might be involved in. This, in summary, were the reasons why the Governance Committee that I chaired decided to prevent government officials from being eligible for FIFA positions. But the ethics principles apply equally at national level and it is profoundly disappointing that FIFA has done nothing to enforce such principle in a coherent manner at the level of national associations. It is one more instance of a selective application of an ethical principle that reveals a culture foreign to the rule of the law.

Josimar: So what can be done to change the culture at FIFA? You were very clear in your testimony that it cannot and have no will to change and no will to power check itself? You were also clear that the EU can be the right institution to do that for them. How do you see this work, precisely?

Maduro: There are two main reasons why I think genuine internal reform will not happen. Firstly, the many examples, some of which I mentioned in the hearing in the House of Commons, of resistance to the independent enforcement of good governance rules: on electoral rules, on political neutrality, on non-discrimination against women etc. In all these areas our attempts to enforce the rules met very strong resistance and ultimately led to our replacement. Secondly, football is a closed shop. Its an area of tremendous social and economic importance whose access and regulation is defined by a set of bodies de facto controlled by a political cartel. This limited and closed group of people is the real constituency of FIFA’s leadership. They determine the political survival of any FIFA leadership and they are not interested in genuine governance reforms since that would be bound to challenge such political cartel and subject it to much stricter accountability. In such context genuine reform will only happen if imposed from the outside. It’s enough to remember how FIFA has been involved in controversies and scandals for many many years but nothing really happened until American judicial authorities started to actually put some people in jail. But the criminal system can only intervene in the most extreme of cases and it depends on the actions of individual criminals systems in different states. What is needed is effective external regulatory supervision. No individual state (including Switzerland) is in a position to do this because they have no effective bargaining power with regard to FIFA. Any state that would try it would likely be excluded from international competitions. It has to be an international coordinated effort and the EU is in the best position to do it and to start such a process. It should create an independent agency, open to other states, to oversee key governance aspects of transnational sports entities. This would include ethical issues, integrity of elections and other key principles of good governance. It would not govern sport but guarantee that such sports organisations comply with basic principles of good governance. The EU has also a clear legal authority to do this because such sports governing bodies act, directly or indirectly, in its internal market.

*Josimar: And what if FIFA don’t want to go along with this setup? Which leverage can the EU use for FIFA to comply?

*Maduro: That’s easy. They will not be able to operate in the EU internal market. If FIFA and its confederations and FAs don’t accept the jurisdiction of the agency, they would not be able to organize sports competitions in the EU internal market, do broadcasting deals etc. I think this makes clear how the EU has the power, that no single state has, to bring FIFA under some independent supervision. In fact, it already does it on some issues of competition law or players rights for example. It needs to do this to make sure that the overall governance conforms with a minimum set of rule of law and accountability principles.

Josimar: In the hearing you also said that you had the impression Infantino really wanted to change FIFA, but that he chose the political way in order to keep support, and that the real problem was the culture among FIFA delegates. Do you still think so? Were you concerned about how your predecessor Domenico Scala left FIFA, and news of Infantino flying around in private jets with a Russian oligarch? Wouldn’t you say he already chose the ‘political way’ when he ran for his own presidency, and won, before you were hired?

Maduro: When he invited me, Mr Infantino told me he was committed to the reform process and, as you remembered, he was very public about FIFA needing reform and having to do things differently from what they had done in the past. My understanding was that he was genuine when he spoke about it, but that he did not fully understand and did not internalise that genuine reform requires an institutional culture that accepts that rules need to be enforced by independent bodies or there is no rule of law. It became progressively clear to me that our role in enforcing eligibility rules or supervising elections, for example, was creating tensions with the confederations and several key and powerful football figures. It is likely, that if he had not replaced me he probably would be penalised politically. This is not a justification however for what de facto undermined independent bodies and the credibility of reforms. It simply confirms my assessment that such genuine reform is only feasible if imposed from the outside.

Josimar: Infantino had told you that the independent committees acted selectively before his time; that they acted in some cases and not in others. Infantino said to you that these committees had ‘been used and instrumentalized’. The composition of the ethics committee was in place long before he became FIFA president. Was this committee subject to Infantino’s comment? Your committee relied on the ethics committee for investigations. How closely did you work with them? Could you discuss specific cases with them, or did you simply forward allegations or read former sentences to apply when considering the eligibility of someone?

Maduro: I have no idea to what period of time exactly president Infantino referred to. During the months I was in office the relationship with the Ethics Committee was good. We asked and obtained information on past and current proceedings involving candidates even if, at times, the information, particularly regarding older cases, was very limited. In addition, when we had information raising doubts on a candidate that was not, however, sufficient to exclude him or her, we would forward it to the Ethics Committee so that they could undertake a more in-depth investigation. Both the president of the Ethics Committee and I would, if necessary, ask each other for any clarification, but we would not, naturally, discuss the substance of the cases and decisions taken by our respective committees. We had also agreed to have meetings with the different confederations so as to explain and promote the role of independent committees at the confederations and football associations. Some confederations were very eager and supportive of this initiative but apparently others were not and we were asked to wait and do these meetings after the FIFA Congress. We accepted to wait and this idea might have been abandoned since we were replaced at that Congress.

*Josimar: You say that some confederations were positive for increasing genuine independent oversight. Why are they then so silent, at least in public? Do you get the sense that if a federation or confederation raise their voice against this culture you describe, that they will be punished for it? Aren’t these members just as complicit? When asked, everyone says they have full confidence that FIFA can be reformed from the inside, and that they see progress in the reform process. Are you disappointed that no member protested more after what happened at the congress in Bahrain when you were removed?

*Maduro: As I already mentioned, FIFA is a closed shop that operates as a political cartel. In such context is not surprising that no FA or football actor speaks openly about what’s wrong. They prefer to stay silent and wait in line hoping their turn will come and knowing that acting otherwise will simply mean that they will be even less influential. That’s how a cartel works. There’s no competition and that’s why cartels don’t get reformed from the inside but from the outside.

Josimar: How hard will it be for FIFA officials to let themselves be subject to rules without discrimination? Isn’t it utopian to think this is possible for such a global institution, where decision makers come from such varied cultures and levels of integrity? Is there a risk that FIFA itself breaks up if delegates are forced to comply to standards, i.e. human rights and anti-corruption, when this can be ingrained in the region they come from? Many might say that they have to live by ‘Western’ standards, and that this is a form of colonialism?

Maduro: Yes, I heard that argument many times and there’s a lot of truth to it. Many officials simply do not accept such culture of transparency and accountability and some do argue that they are western standards being imposed. I have two points on that. One is what I always answered when confronted with that at FIFA: I was only applying the rules that football associations had agreed on and enshrined in FIFA rules. If, for example, they do not actually want to promote female representation or free and fair elections then they should not put it in the rules… What is certainly not acceptable is to adopt all these rules and principles of good governance and then ask the independent bodies charged with their application not to enforce them because such rules are allegedly not accepted by certain cultures. Either FIFA and the FAs are serious about what they say and the rules they adopt or not. The second point that these arguments make clear to me is that they reinforce why, as I have argued, genuine reform and good governance will only be feasible if enforced from the outside.

Josimar: Both the Governance Committee and the Ethics Committee deal with individuals, as set by FIFA regulations and the code of ethics. But when it comes to federations or other entities, like companies or local organizing committees, there is no independent adjudicatory body. Is this perhaps needed at FIFA? Looking at the Garcia report, for example, you see that there was significant evidence of undue influence from bidding nations. Still, to invoke a possible sanction can only be done by the FIFA council upon recommendations, which they may or may not follow. What’s your opinion on this?

Maduro: I do believe the problems start at the level of the FAs and confederations and are present at different entities and levels. That is why we had intended to organise, together with the ethics committees, meetings at the confederations and FAs to promote such culture and independent bodies at those levels. The governance committee also proposed an amendment to the eligibility rules aimed at favouring that but that was not adopted by the Council. And in our proposal of a FIFA human rights policy, that I believe was adopted, we introduced an independent monitoring mechanism for compliance with human rights by organizing committees of FIFA World Cups. The independence of that monitoring committee was to be reviewed by the Governance Committee, but the credibility of this is naturally affected when the Governance committee, itself, no longer complies with the independence rules of the governance regulations since, at the moment, less than half of its members that are independent.

Josimar: Your testimony has been very important since so few who leave FIFA dare to speak of their experience, or even express an opinion. This is obviously because of fear that FIFA can sue for breaching confidentiality agreements. Should more governments do as in Britain, and secure the immunity to shed more light on the culture problems within FIFA?

Maduro: The first important point to make is that confidentiality does not extend to actions that are themselves contrary to FIFA ethical rules and that the case law or the European Court of Human Rights case law is clear that public interest in the knowledge of certain facts prevails over a duty of confidentiality in most circumstances. But even if that is the case, it’s natural for many people to be deterred from speaking out simply out of fear of litigation and the costs that involves. In this context, parliamentary inquiries may be important to overturn this. In my view everyone has an obligation to cooperate with such inquires. It would be important for the European Parliament to take an initiative in this respect. It would be hard for FIFA to oppose that. I would also like to have FIFA ethics committee take a position on the fact that FIFA administration is itself enforcing a particularly interpretation of such rule of the ethics code when this is a matter for the jurisdiction of the ethics committee.

Josimar: Will you continue to care about governance issues at FIFA, even if you’re not part of the organization anymore? Is there a political will within EU to challenge FIFA to become more compliant?

Maduro: Sure, I will continue to be interested in these issues. I followed football, but was not involved in its organization or governance until my functions at FIFA. I became really committed to do something important in terms of better governance of sports organizations. The disappointment with what happened is big, but so is my conviction that this only makes it more important for someone in my position to contribute for reform to really happen. It has become clearer to me how important that is for football to be credible.

Josimar: Do you like football yourself? If so: what’s your favourite football moment? And favourite team and player?

Maduro: Yes, I do like football. I have two favourite football moments: when my team won the league after 18 years… and when Portugal won the Euro last year. My favourite  team is Sporting and I also like Fiorentina in Italy where I currently live. As to the player, I have to say Ronaldo, Portuguese and trained at Sporting… And I do admire his competitive drive and incredible commitment to always get better.

Questions and answers marked with an asterisk (*) have been added to the original interview.