GIANNI Infantino, the under-fire president of world football governing body Fifa, is a rather slightly-built and balding fellow whose friendly demeanour creates a good first impression. His quick wit and careful diction — befitting the hot-shot lawyer he is — match well with his neat and genial outward appearance.
Infantino’s charisma was on full display in Zimbabwe slightly more than three years ago when he visited the country as main guest-of-honour for a glitzy campaign event packaged as the birthday party of the host country’s football federation boss, Phillip Chiyangwa.
Madagascar’s Ahmad, the man Infantino was showing support for in the quest to unseat long-serving African football boss Issa Hayatou, is nothing quite like the world football supremo in terms of allure.
Ahmad, who would achieve the landmark victory over Hayatou less than a month after the Harare bash, often cuts a solemn figure in public. When he looks in your direction, it is with a hard gaze, both eyes and mouth tightly squeezed at the corners, as if demonstrating resentment or mistrust.
In February of 2017, Ahmad hugged warmly with Infantino inside the Harare International Conference Centre (HICC), during the glamorous gig that got the attention of the footballing world. Phillip Chiyangwa, the host and Ahmad’s campaign manager in the “Hayatou Must-Go” cause, had put up quite a show in his home country and he too appeared destined for greater heights in football politics under a new world order spearheaded by the charismatic Infantino.
But a year is a long time in sports politics. Ahmad, who has reportedly fallen out with some of his allies who represented 24 national federations in Harare in February 2017, has not taken long to fall foul of authorities as the new broom in African football.
Last year, Ahmad was questioned by French authorities in Paris for allegedly ordering his secretary-general to pay US$20, 000 bribes into accounts of African football association presidents. A leaked document also accused Ahmad of costing Caf an extra US$830 000 by ordering equipment via a French intermediary company called Tactical Steel rather than directly from manufacturers.
Of the prominent anti-Hayatou figures who were in Harare three years ago, Ahmad isn’t the only one to have made headlines for the wrong reasons. Amaju Pinnick, president of the Nigerian Football Federation, a stalwart behind Zimbabwe’s Chiyangwa in selling Ahmad to the continent, has since faced serious fraud allegations in his country.
Although he still keeps his position as the federation head in one of the continent’s strongest footballing nations, the fact that Pinnick and three others were charged for allegedly misappropriating Fifa funds amounting to US$ $8,4 million is a massive dent on the reputation of the alliance that presented itself as African football’s saviour post-Hayatou.
Another outspoken critic of Hayatou during the Zimbabwe get-together was the influential president of Liberia’s association, Musa Bility. At the time of the big Harare party, the Liberian was one of the most powerful men in African football, an executive committee member of Caf.
His world collapsed around him after Fifa banned him for 10 years last year and fined him US$500 000 for breaching its code of ethics. The misfortune met by the Harare bash strategists has not been about money only. In September 2018, prominent South African administrator Danny Jordaan was handed a shock defeat by Malawian dark-horse for a position on the all-powerful politburo of world football, the Fifa Council.
Jordaan and his comrade-in-arms from next door, Chiyangwa, could hardly hide their special neighbourly bond at the HICC bash in 2017 — men on a special mission and on their way up the ladder in world football.
Chiyangwa has also since lost an election, ousted as Zimbabwe Football Association (Zifa) president in December 2018 by a rank outsider, Felton Kamambo. Credit to both men, though: Jordaan was last year named as a third vice-president of the continent’s football ruling body, Caf, while Chiyangwa remains head of the Southern African regional bloc, Cosafa.
It means both still carry considerable clout in the game in Africa, and can still manoeuvre their way through in the aftermath of the electoral setbacks. But out of all the people who came to Harare in 2017 for one of the glitziest night shindigs you’ll ever experience, who could have imagined that just three years down the line, it would be the smiley SwissItalian himself, Infantino — squeaky clean image and all — to also go under the microscope for alleged unethical financial practices.
Late last month, a federal prosecutor in Switzerland opened a criminal investigation into Infantino after reaching a decision that there were “indications of criminal conduct” in meetings between the Fifa boss and an official supervising an investigation into football corruption.
Both Infantino and Fifa have shrugged off any suggestion of wrongdoing. The law will take its own course here, and if found to be on its right side — proven innocent — Infantino might, in celebration, dance to the music of Harare, as he did quite gracefully in the Zimbabwean capital in February 2017.