ZURICH (Reuters) – Largely anonymous, lacking police powers and with its independence sometimes questioned, FIFA’s ethics committee has often struggled to be taken seriously in the fight against corruption in soccer’s world body.
While U.S. and Swiss authorities have grabbed the headlines with dawn raids on a luxury Zurich hotel and the indictment of 27 soccer officials, FIFA’s own watchdog has had to fend off criticism that it is a weak lame duck.
But, over the last year, the committee has flashed its teeth, culminating in Monday’s decision to hand eight-year bans to both FIFA President Sepp Blatter and European (UEFA) soccer chief Michel Platini.
Sources close to world soccer’s ethics panel have told Reuters that there are many more cases in the pipeline.
Blatter and Platini were the biggest scalps so far for the watchdog that has also imposed life bans to a number of former FIFA executive committee members including Mohamed Bin Hammam of Qatar, Jack Warner from Trinidad and Tobago and Chuck Blazer from the United States for corruption.
Some of those under investigation have already been named and include former West German captain Franz Beckenbauer, regarded as one of the greatest players to have graced the game. Beckenbauer has denied wrongdoing.
FIFA was thrown into turmoil when U.S. authorities announced the indictment of 14 people on May 27, seven of whom were arrested at their Zurich hotel, two days before the annual FIFA Congress.
But the crisis had been brewing for several years before then and, since 2012, FIFA’s ethics committee has been enjoying more power and independence in attempts to weed out corruption.
In response to the scandals, the committee was reformed and divided into two chambers, one to carry out investigations and the other to hand out sanctions.
Even so, it still faced suggestions that it was toothless and that Blatter was wielding control from behind the scenes, something committee chief investigator Cornel Borbely dismissed as “absurd” in a interview with Reuters in March.
“DON’T TAKE ORDERS FROM FIFA”
“I don’t take any orders at all from FIFA — none whatsoever,” he said. “I alone decide whether to open, conduct and conclude an investigation and on its result. I am completely independent of any FIFA officials.
“Whoever breaches the Code of Ethics will come into our purview, regardless of hierarchy, rank or position,” added Borbely, who previously headed an economic crimes investigation unit in Zurich for three years.
Borbely generally keeps a low profile, as does Hans-Joachim Eckert, the German judge who heads the adjudicatory chamber.
Until 2006, FIFA did not even have an ethics committee. Any suspected cases of graft and bribery were dealt with by its disciplinary committee, which is more used to dealing with matters of violence and misconduct by players on the pitch, or by the executive committee itself.
When FIFA vice-president Warner was accused of profiting from the resale of 2006 World Cup tickets, the executive committee expressed “disapproval at his conduct” and told him to be “more cautious and prudent” – but then said it would not pursue the matter.
Even after it had been set up, the ethics committee, whose first chairman was former British athlete Sebastian Coe, could only initiate investigations with the approval of FIFA’s secretary general.
FIFA was pressured into reform following allegations of corruption in the decision to award the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments to Russia and Qatar respectively.
After the two-chamber system was proposed by a reform commission, Blatter himself led the campaign to get it approved by FIFA’s Congress, which happened in Budapest in May 2012.
He failed to appreciate the irony of the situation after being banned on Monday, saying that he was exempt.
“This committee has no right to go against the president,” he said, even though the FIFA ethics code makes no exemption for its leader. “The president of FIFA can only be released from his activities by the Congress … otherwise you cannot elect another president.”
Sources close to the ethics committee said the ban was considered tougher on Blatter, 79, due to his age. He will no longer be allowed to enter the FIFA building, use official FIFA paper, give statements in behalf of FIFA or to talk officially about soccer on television.
If Blatter and Platini want to watch a match in a stadium, they can only do so if they buy a ticket.
(Additional reporting by Irene Preisinger in Munich; Editing by Mark Heinrich)