MANAMA, Bahrain — Hundreds of prosecutions of suspected wrongdoing by soccer officials will be affected by President Gianni Infantino firing FIFA’s top judge and prosecutor.
The ousted investigator, Cornel Borbely, said Wednesday that the workload — heavier than even most FIFA critics imagined — of the ethics committee will be impeded by the firing that Infantino sprung on his ruling council a day earlier.
On Wednesday, Infantino declined to discuss the reasons for not handing new terms to Swiss prosecutor Borbely and German judge Hans-Joachim Eckert.
The FIFA leader also insisted its image had not been damaged by the fallout — despite widespread comparisons of him with President Donald Trump, who also fired a top investigator onTuesday.
"We are positive," said Infantino, whose reputation for acquiring and wielding executive power matches that of predecessor Sepp Blatter.
Amid mounting criticism of the Infantino’s purge of the men who have banned soccer’s top officials in recent years, only one member of his council broke rank to publicly question the decision.
"I said in the meeting that we were satisfied with the work of both people," German federation president Reinhard Grindel said, referencing Eckert and Borbely. "I asked because the general secretary (Fatma Samoura) made a statement in the media a few weeks ago that they will support both. And so it is a decision of the president that he makes the proposal … you have to ask Infantino why he made this proposal."
Only a day before Tuesday’s council meeting, Grindel said he asked Samoura’s office "if there were any announcements that Borbely and Eckert will be displaced and they said no, they had no information."
Eckert and Borbely said they discovered they were being removed from heading the two FIFA ethics chambers on their phones as they arrived in Bahrain on Tuesday for the FIFA Congress.
"First I was astonished, second I was disappointed because I am trying to ask myself, ‘Have I done something wrong?"’ Eckert said in an interview. "You think about yourself and I didn’t find anything. I really don’t know because nobody (from FIFA) speaks with me up to now."
The departing ethics officials said the process of bringing corrupt officials to justice will now stall as new ethics officials have to learn how to navigate the global FIFA structures. Borbely said his "removal was unnecessary and because of that political," and called it a "setback for the fight against corruption."
"We investigated several hundred cases and several hundred are still pending and ongoing at this moment," Borbely added at a joint news conference with Eckert. "Imagine where FIFA would be today without an ethics committee."
Current investigations include Russian Deputy Prime Minister Vitaly Mutko for links to covering up doping cases. A judgment in that case could remove Mutko from heading the 2018 World Cup organizing committee, after he was already forced to cede his FIFA Council seat.
German soccer great Frank Beckenbauer and Olympic powerbroker Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah of Kuwait are also under suspicion in cases of suspected fraud and bribery, respectively.
Eckert and Borbely have been with the ethics court since a revamp with greater independence in 2012, and have banned multiple officials during the biggest corruption crisis in FIFA’s history, including disgraced leader Blatter and then-UEFA President Michel Platini in 2015.
"It’s not easy to take Mr. Blatter or Mr. Platini out of their jobs," Eckert said. "You are thinking quite a long time, is it correct? Can we do (it)? Should we (do it)? It looks so easy and it is not easy."
FIFA said that its ruling council proposed Greek judge Vassilios Skouris and Colombian lawyer Maria Claudia Rojas for approval by the congress of all soccer nations on Thursday. Borbely said there’s "no period of transition" to the new ethics leadership for the ongoing cases.
"They do not have the experience from Day 0," Borbely said. "You have to develop this practice, this knowhow. It’s a question how long it takes for the new chamber to investigate these cases to the level that will bring the success."
FIFA vice-president Victor Montagliani called Eckert and Borbely "unprofessional" for speaking out, though neither has ever broken ethics rules by speaking on the record about active cases.
"It’s time to give someone else an opportunity," said Montagliani, who leads the CONCACAF confederation.