Questions about Infantino’s integrity are, at best, premature

WHEN I PUT THE words ‘Infantino’ and ‘Panama’ into an online search earlier this month, in the days after the Panama Papers story broke, it brought up 543,000 results. These included newspapers around the globe running stories about how the new Fifa president had been “pulled into the corruption scandal” for signing off a 2006 Champions League/Uefa Cup media rights contract in Ecuador with a company that had links to the Full Play agency, one of the three sports marketing companies indicted last year by the US Department of Justice.

The conclusions about Infantino’s behaviour while Uefa’s director of legal services ranged from there now being “a shadow” over him and his credibility being “on the line”, to him being “unfit to lead Fifa into a new era of transparency”. Two weeks later, I have yet to read anything that raises any meaningful questions about his integrity or the probity of his actions at the time. My witch-hunt detector continues to bleep furiously.

At the base of much of the furore was an absurd proposition: that in 2006, Infantino should have known that Cross Trading – the small agency to which Uefa sales agency Team Marketing sold the rights – had links to Full Play, and should have somehow sensed that nine years later Full Play owners Hugo Jinkis and his son, Mariano, would be indicted on corruption charges.

This initial line very quickly mutated into the seemingly more reasonable suggestion that when the DoJ launched its dawn raids in May 2015, as part of an investigation into what it sees as endemic corruption, Uefa should have checked every media and marketing contract it had ever signed to see if it had had any dealings with those companies indicted. Exactly what Uefa would have done with this information, beyond disclosing it for the sake of transparency, is unclear. It would have had no legal grounds to unilaterally rescind any of those contracts.

Onto this wobbly foundation were then laid further strands of ‘evidence’. Uefa sold broadcast rights to a company that had no broadcast capacity. Infantino signed off a deal with a company registered in the secretive South Pacific tax haven of Niue island. He did not do “due diligence” on the company buying the rights. Team Marketing, Uefa’s sales agent, was “vastly under-pricing” the rights, if Cross Trading could buy them for $110,000 and “flip” them to Ecuadorian broadcaster Teleamazonas for $311,170. And Infantino became a board member of Team one year after the deal.

The deal does indeed raise questions about why Cross Trading was buying rights on behalf of Teleamazonas but then charging it at such a mark-up. There are also questions about why there were no other bidders prepared to pay more than Cross Trading and about why the subsidiary of an Argentinian company, Full Play, should be domiciled in Niue for tax purposes. But these are questions for the competition authority of Ecuador and the tax authority of Argentina.

Yet the day after the first media reports appeared, Swiss police raided Uefa’s offices in Nyon on the “suspicion of criminal mismanagement”. For those questioning Infantino’s integrity, this was the clincher. But it would be interesting to know exactly how much weight was given to the negative media coverage surrounding the deal. The office of the attorney general of Switzerland said its decision to swoop was “the result of findings that have emerged from other proceedings, as well as the corresponding financial analyses carried out by the OAG. Current publications in the media subsequently revealed still other elements that made it possible to complement the existing findings in a decisive manner.”

After all that has come to light in the last year, and at a time when the transcripts of three of those indicted by the DoJ – Jeffrey Webb, Alejandro Burzaco and Jose Margulies – talk of kickbacks from sports marketing companies being standard practice, it is right that there should be unprecedented scrutiny of how commercial rights deals are done by the major sports federations. The media has a vital role to play in exposing and bringing down the bad guys, but I’ll be keeping my powder dry on this one until some credible evidence of wrongdoing emerges.

Cycling splits again

From one beleaguered federation president elected on a reform ticket to another: Brian Cookson. When Cookson replaced Pat McQuaid at the helm of the Union Cycliste Internationale in September 2013 after an acrimonious election battle, tackling doping was obviously the major topic on the agenda. But his platform was much wider. His manifesto, ‘Restoring Trust, Leading Change’, had been built on six pledges: rebuild trust in the UCI; transform anti-doping in cycling; grow cycling across the globe; develop women’s cycling; overhaul elite road cycling; and strengthen cycling’s credibility and influence within the Olympic movement.

To overhaul elite road cycling, Cookson would need to get event promoters, especially Amaury Sport Organisation, the promoter of the Tour de France, to see eye to eye with the teams on a whole range of sporting and commercial issues.

Briefly, in Barcelona in December, he appeared to have pulled this off, when UCI’s reform programme for professional cycling was approved. But days later ASO announced it was pulling its events from the 2017 UCI World Tour. At the time of going to press, the dispute was unresolved. On pages 12-15, Cookson tells SportBusiness International about UCI’s efforts to find a settlement, why ASO’s stance does not represent a failure of the reform process and why he intends to run again as president, even if ASO cannot be persuaded back on to the World Tour. Some of the major players in the sport, including Graham Bartlett, chief executive of the Velon group of teams, Infront executive director of summer sports Stephan Herth and IMG head of cycling Floris Weisz, explain how opportunities for commercial growth still exist within the sport despite its fractured structure.

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