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May 28, 2020

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The more things are supposed to change, the more they so often stay the same.

Gianni Infantino’s election as the new President of FIFA was supposed to hail the beginning of a new dawn; the start of a new, corruption-free era where the bribery and deceit of the previous regime is banished to the past.

It took a mere seven days for wrongdoing and scandal to unashamedly return to the footballing forefront as law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer published their long-awaited report into allegations of corruption within Germany’s successful bid for the 2006 World Cup. It made for grim reading.

While we all knew it was coming, it hardly gave those of us who love the game so dearly any particular cause for celebration.

Yes, they found no clear evidence that votes had been bought, but the report wasn’t quite the result the German Football Association (DFB) might have been looking for as Christian Duve, a member of the law firm, told reporters at a news conference in Frankfurt that they “cannot completely rule out” vote-buying in the bid process.

This was mainly due to the fact that they were unable to interview some of those at the centre of the controversy, including banned former FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who remains exiled from the game after he was punished for a series of ethics breaches back in December.

Acting FIFA secretary general Markus Kattner also refused to co-operate with the investigators, though FIFA claim this is because of the ongoing Swiss criminal probe into widespread corruption within the tainted governing body. The words of the two officials may have gone some way to answering the questions the report provided.

Among such questions was the part played by Bid Committee chief Franz Beckenbauer, the former Germany international whose role in the 1974 World Cup winning team is diminishing in importance with each passing allegation, as the report shone the light on a series of suspicious payments he made to notorious crook Mohammad Bin Hammam in 2002.

Beckenbauer was already under enough scrutiny as it is, with the allegations that he knew about the now infamous €6.7 million (£5 million/$7.6 million) payment – supposedly a slush fund used to bribe four Asian members of the FIFA Executive Committee – swirling over his head like vultures circling their prey. Now, the pressure has been ramped up a notch.

The report showed the now 70-year-old paid CHF10 million (£7.1 million/$10 million/€9.1 million) via a Swiss law firm, which slowly but surely made its way into the account of Qatari company Kemco, owned by former FIFA official Bin Hammam, who was banned from the game for life in 2012. The reasons for the transactions remain unclear, and we may never know their true purpose.

But even the mere existence of such payments provides grave cause for concern. Why were they made? Who knew about them? Duve was certainly not afraid to have his say.

“They [the payments] landed somewhere in Qatar, this [company] is under the influence of Bin Hammam. But anything beyond that is speculation. We had the task of presenting the facts,” he said.

“You could connect the payment with the FIFA re-election of Blatter or for the 2006 [World Cup] vote but that would be pure speculation.”

Such conjecture has been rife since the slush fund allegations were thrust into the limelight by German publication Der Spiegel back in October. As has so often been the case with the seemingly never-ending scandals associated with world football’s governing body, the reasons for the payment were rejected, dismissed and fended off by those deemed to be at the heart of the problem. Nothing to see here, chaps. All is rosy.

The report said it was “falsely declared” as being for a FIFA gala event which never came to fruition. It was suggested that a loan had been made by the late Adidas chief executive which did not appear on accounts, and it was then used to swing the rights to the 2006 World Cup Germany’s way.

Aside from the payment which sparked the investigation in the first place, Freshfields also made some alarming statements, claiming that many of the files they wanted to see simply “could not be found”, including one aptly named “FIFA 2000”, which was taken out of the DFB archives by a colleague of former DFB President Wolfgang Niersbach in June 2015 - who remains a member of the FIFA Executive Committee - and has now seemingly vanished into thin air.

What this implies borders on criminal as it suggests key evidence – which may or may not have flagged up wrongdoing – was buried, deleted or destroyed. Someone somewhere didn’t want those files ever to be uncovered, and there must be a reason for that.

It seems that the extensive, wide-ranging 361-page report, where over 128,000 documents were examined and where more than 30 people were questioned, could have delved deeper into the furore, but investigators were clearly hampered in their work – allegedly by corrupt members of the FIFA empire whose dirty tricks have brought the organisation to its knees.

While Infantino’s reign is supposed to look to the future, it is difficult not to continually think about the past. After all, every World Cup bid process since 1998 has now been the subject of corruption allegations and criminal investigations are ongoing into how Russia and Qatar won the rights to the 2018 and 2022 tournaments respectively. He must think he can never quite get away from the controversy that dogged Blatter’s tenure at the helm, even at this early stage of his Presidency.

The 2026 World Cup race, suspended in June of last year in the wake of the crisis within the organisation, provides one of the key early hurdles for Infantino to clear. He has claimed he will start the bidding within his first three months as President and sent out a defiant message to all potential runners following yesterday’s release of the Freshfields report.

“We need to make sure that the bidding process that we do, that we put in place, is absolutely bullet-proof in this respect," he said.

"I will do everything I can to make sure that this happens because I think that the credibility of FIFA is, as well, at stake here and we have to get the 2026 process absolutely right.

“We need to make sure that we do everything we possibly can, not only to prevent strange things to happen around bidding processes but also to prevent the perception that strange things could happen.”

No doubt he will be itching to run his keen lawyer eye over the report but it goes without saying that he is unlikely to enjoy what he sees.

Welcome to the job, Mr President.