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Gianni Infantino’s secret plan to sell out FIFA to investors with ties to Saudi Arabia

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Documents obtained by SZ reveal that FIFA President Gianni Infantino is plotting to sell FIFA’s rights to the World Cup and other competitions to an investor consortium with ties to Saudi Arabia.

The Best FIFA Football Awards - Green Carpet Arrivals
FIFA President Gianni Infantino at The Best FIFA Football Awards, September 24, 2018.
Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images

While fans of European soccer worldwide take in the November international break and a string of exciting Nations League games, the German press has revealed disturbing information about FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s ongoing push for the approval of two new competitions to be controlled by what the New York Times called a “mystery consortium” in return for the staggering sum of $25 billion.

Selling out the World Cup

Documents obtained by Sueddeutsche Zeitung have now shed light on the mystery, revealing the real scope of Infantino’s plan and the identity of the consortium behind the stunning bid for the rights to the two competitions — the Club World Cup and a proposed World League for national teams.

The ostensible heart of the deal, the two competitions, is merely a screen. The contract draft, or “term sheet,” obtained by SZ covers far more than the sponsoring and naming rights of the two competitions. Infantino proposes nothing less than to sell control of virtually all FIFA’s rights, including those to the World Cup itself.

The proposal covers digital and archival rights, film and video, satellite and Internet broadcasts, merchandising and rights to the games, all HD and 3D productions, computer games and virtual reality. It even covers the rights to forms of content that have not even been invented: the investors obtain control over “every other format that is subsequently developed worldwide.”

Ties to Saudi Arabia

The identity of the “mystery consortium” behind has also been revealed. FIFA’s would-be partners are the British advisory firm SoftBank Investment Advisers (SBIA) and a closely related London-based investment company Centricus Partners. Centricus boasts on its homepage that it “oversees $20bn of assets and has structured deals including fundraising and advising on the $100bn SoftBank Vision Fund.”

According to SZ, both companies have close ties to Saudi Arabian investors, suggesting that there may be geopolitical motives behind the massive offer, such as where future World Cups take place. In a sense, the deal may be an effort to forestall the outright corruption and bribery that is alleged to have brought the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.

The FIFA Digital Corporation

According to a follow-up report by SZ, the term sheet obtained by the paper outlines the creation of a “FIFA Digital Corporation” (FDC) that would manage the Club World Cup and a new World League, but that merely conceals the vastly bigger rights buyout. The salient point to emerge from the paper: even if the Club World Cup and World League are not held, the FDC retains all the rights to FIFA’s competitions and content.

The structure of the FDC itself is dubious. FIFA itself would maintain nominal majority ownership with 51% of the shares. Infantino himself meanwhile would become chairman of the newly created FDC. Marc Pieth, Professor of Criminal Law at Basel University, described the deal to SZ as follows:

It’s a raid on FIFA: they are trying to gut it financially and move all decisions to a dubious consortium of which [Infantino] will be the boss.

FIFA’s own chief legal counsel, Marco Villiger, and his deputy Jörg Vollmüller were tasked with an internal review of the plans and delivered a devastating verdict in a 16-page report. Citing numerous legal problems, they urged Infantino to limit the proposal to the Club World Cup and World League. Both jurists were fired — Villiger, who had been at FIFA since 2002, was given four hours to vacate his office after returning from vacation — the bosses eventually granted him eight.

DFB President Grindel calls for transparency

Infantino pushed the project forward, pressing the FIFA Council to approve the deal already in mid-March. He pressured the council to accede by citing a 60-day “ultimatum” the investor consortium had supposedly issued. The deadline passed, but the efforts to seal the deal continue.

FIFA told SZ that the “term sheet” obtained by the newspaper outlining the deal is “outdated,” downplaying its importance as “one of hundreds of such papers.” But that is unlikely: just this past Thursday, a special FIFA task force met for the first time to discuss the plan. Grindel had secured the council’s approval of the task force in late October.

Representatives of UEFA informed SZ that only the two competitions were discussed at the meeting.

Since details of the rights buyout have come to light, the head of the DFB, Reinhard Grindel, who is also a member of UEFA’s contingent on the FIFA Council, has called on Infantino to disclose all the details of the $25-billion deal (SZ). He said, “I advocate that Infantino now put all the facts and information on the table.”

Grindel described it as a problem “that we are still speculating about the exact basis of this dubious offer even after eight months.” Infantino has thus far declined to reveal the identity of the investors to the FIFA Council. Although Grindel declined to call for Infantino’s resignation, he criticized the lack of transparency that has prevailed under his tenure:

It is important that the president of FIFA stands for integrity, transparency, and compliance.