On 24 September 2020, even as Fifa president Gianni Infantino flexed the awesome muscles of the billion dollar global sport body that he heads, he revealed its Achilles heel.
It was the day that Bureau of the Fifa Council, headed by Infantino, suspended the Trinidad and Tobago Football Football Association (TTFA) from the international game for the first time. And the implications arguably extended well beyond the fate of besieged TTFA president William Wallace.
“The decision of the former leadership to go to a local court to contest the appointment of the normalisation committee,” stated the Fifa release, “jeopardises not only the future of football in Trinidad and Tobago but also endangers the overall global football governance structure, which relies on the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) as the exclusive forum for resolving disputes of this nature.”
Ever since 17 March 2020, and arguably before, Infantino has tried to be rid of Wallace—a retired Carapichaima East Secondary vice-principal. The two men have never spoken.
Infantino convinced his colleagues on the bureau that the appropriate tool for eliminating this ‘fly’ was a hammer. And, on 24 September, he might have overplayed his hand.
By turning the TTFA’s nightmare into reality, Infantino had released Wallace from his only remaining fear. The football official had nothing left to lose and, although Fifa hoped for the opposite outcome, a courtroom showdown had just become inevitable.
Yesterday, Fifa’s knickers were inspected by the High Court. And although there is little surprise that Madame Justice Carol Gobin caught a whiff of something unsettling, her judgment went further than the usual pontificating newspaper column.
The root of the angst between both parties is the Bureau of the Fifa Council’s decision on 17 March to disband the TTFA Board and remove its elected officials, due to ‘extremely low overall financial management methods, combined with a massive debt’ which put the TTFA in ‘a very real risk of insolvency and illiquidity’ and, as such, ‘corrective measures need to be applied urgently’.
It is worth noting here that ‘Bureau of the Fifa Council’ is the snazzy new name for what was once the ‘Fifa Emergency Committee, under previous presidents. Article 38.1 of the Fifa Statutes mandates the Bureau to ‘deal with all matters within the competence of the Council requiring immediate decision between two meetings of the Council’.
Article 8.2 of the Fifa Statutes states: ‘Executive bodies of member associations may under exceptional circumstances be removed from office by the Council in consultation with the relevant confederation and replaced by a normalisation committee for a specific period of time’.
But the Fifa Council has never taken the initiative on the issues affecting the TTFA, as its responsibility in the statutes. Instead, the Bureau declared the TTFA’s financial state to be an ‘emergency’ requiring urgent address, and ruled on the twin island republic itself.
The Fifa Council is a 37-member body with wide representation from each of football’s six confederations. The Bureau of the Fifa Council, in contrast, is comprised of Infantino and six other members.
The declaration that the TTFA’s finances had become an emergency was particularly odd since the local body’s last financial statement was submitted to Fifa in the previous year under Wallace’s predecessor, David John-Williams. (In fact, Wallace did not stay in office long enough to hold an audit of his own tenure.)
And here is what Infantino said about John-Williams at the opening of the controversial TTFA Home of Football on 18 November 2019—six days before he was democratically replaced by Wallace:
“I came to Trinidad and Tobago, and I was not believing to find somebody like [David John-Williams] in Trinidad and Tobago. I have to say the truth. Because the Trinidad and Tobago Football Association was more or less in the same state as Fifa at that time. David was saying ‘shambles’, I say shambles was maybe a compliment for the state you found.
“We found a federation which was under the earth. TTFA, Trinidad and Tobago football, very sadly, was in the headlines for other reasons than football, even though linked to football. Today, we are here, and proud to be here, because today, Trinidad and Tobago is the capital of the world of football.”
The Home of Football, incidentally, is still unfinished and is now the centre of a police investigation for corruption. It is an investigation that Wallace and his general secretary Ramesh Ramdhan initially vowed to instigate and share their findings—even if it implicated Fifa officials including Fifa Chief Member Associations officer Veron Mosengo-Omba.
Mosengo-Omba attempted to justify Fifa’s intervention in a 15 June affidavit, which Gobin referenced.
“In 2018, the TTFA was randomly selected for the central review programme [and] coming out of that audit, Fifa was concerned by the high level of debt that the TTFA had accumulated,” stated Mosengo-Omba, “and was of the view that there were serious governance issues at the TTFA. However, the TTFA was due to hold elections for a new executive committee and Fifa’s general practice is to not interfere in governance matters involving member associations during electoral years, so as to avoid giving the impression that Fifa is taking the side of any candidate for the position of president of that member association.
“In keeping with this general practice, Fifa therefore held its hand on taking any action so as to allow an opportunity for those elections to take place and for any new executive committee to begin to address these serious issues.”
So the ‘emergency’ that Infantino decided to address actually existed for two years under John-Williams, who the Fifa president urged TTFA members to re-elect—rather than remove.
Note too that, although Infantino’s Bureau met on 17 March, the Fifa Council convened on 20 March. Was the TTFA matter so pressing that it could not wait three days to be discussed by the proper body meant to oversee the governing body’s affairs?
On 16 August, Fifa secretary general Fatma Samoura gave Wallace and his United TTFA slate until 16 September to withdraw the High Court case, at the threat of initiating proceedings to suspend the local football body.
Wallace did not not comply. On 17 September, the Fifa Council met and dispersed without repercussions for the TTFA. Similar occurred on 18 September, when all 211 Fifa member nations convened for its annual congress.
Immediately after the Fifa Congress, though, the TTFA’s court case became an emergency again, as Samoura offering a new deadline of 23 September—before the matter would again be sent to Infantino’s seven-member committee.
Is Infantino misusing the Bureau of the Fifa Council to further his own agendas, rather than for legitimate emergencies?
Gobin did not buy Fifa’s line about the ‘exceptional circumstances’ that justified the removal of the TTFA’s elected officials.
“If these were exceptional circumstances in Fifa’s assessment then they were not brought about by the actions of the new board,” stated Gobin. “As a matter of basic fairness, the new board ought not to have been penalised with so extreme an action as removal, because of a situation which it inherited, when Fifa was at all times well aware of the history.
“Mr Mosengo-Omba’s explanation as to why it waited until after the election to take action and then to move against the new Board, is unconvincing… The timing of the removal of the new board—after the troubling financial management had been allowed to continue and fester even with Fifa’s annual audits and oversight—makes Mr Mosengo-Omba’s claim that Fifa held its hand until after November elections to allow an opportunity for the incoming board to address the serious issues even less credible.
“On any assessment it clearly did not allow a sufficient opportunity if it moved to normalise after a mere four months.”
The High Court judge scoffed at Mosengo-Omba’s claim that Fifa was trying to avoid improper interference in the TTFA’s operations.
“When Mr Mosengo-Omba’s explanation is viewed against the claimant’s evidence, it has to be rejected,” said Gobin. “If, as he claims, Fifa held its hand in taking action so as to avoid giving the impression that it was taking the side of any candidate ‘in an electoral year’, then the haste with which it moved to unseat the new board established the opposite.
“[…] On the evidence, I find that the decision to activate the normalisation was improper and made in bad faith. The conclusion that it was a contrivance to subvert the outcome of the 24 November elections is in my view inescapable.
“In the end, it defeated the will of the persons who had elected the new board into office. In the circumstances Fifa’s claim that it remains neutral in matters of politics (within the sport) is demonstrated to be patently false.”
But while Gobin found the specific matter of the attempted overthrow of the TTFA’s elected officers to be ‘unwarranted and indefensible’, she also looked at the Fifa Statutes which emboldened Infantino’s cabal in the first place.
In her judgment on 13 August, Gobin said that since the TTFA was formed by an Act of Parliament, it is outside its jurisdiction to ‘agree to submit to foreign law as FIFA Statutes prescribe’ in accepting its normalisation committee.
However, she also noted that Fifa’s claimed right to eject the elected officers of any member association—on the vague of justification of ‘exceptional circumstances’—ran counter to article 19.2 of its statutes, which states: ‘Each member association shall manage its affairs independently and without undue influence from third parties’.
“What was telling was that [Fifa’s normalisation notice] indicated among the tasks included in the normalisation committee’s mandate was: ‘to organise and conduct elections of a new TTFA executive committee for a four year mandate’,” said Gobin. “The TTFA Act provides for the elections of officers. Fifa has no power to interfere with or override our sovereign Laws. The [normalisation committee] mandate however put paid to its claim that Fifa does not interfere in governance matters during electoral years.
“This action of arrogating an invasive power to essentially direct the holding of fresh elections in violation of the provisions of the TTFA Act, established that contrary to its declared position, [Fifa] was directly engaging in the governance of the TTFA by seeking to remove the newly elected board.”
In essence, there is a contradiction in Fifa’s Statutes which ought to set alarm bells ringing among the other 210 member associations that make up the governing body.
Article 59.2 of the Fifa Statutes states: ‘Recourse to ordinary courts of law is prohibited unless specifically provided for in the Fifa regulations. Recourse to ordinary courts of law for all types of provisional measures is also prohibited’.
However, Gobin insisted that this clause does not provide Fifa with the protection Infantino thinks. Fifa’s legal position appears to be built on bluff and bullying instead.
“If this policy of Fifa’s is to be effective, then it can only mean that Fifa does not recognise the courts and the judicial systems in any of its 212 (sic) member states,” stated Gobin. “This is, in the courts’ view, an astonishing position for any entity, however powerful, to adopt—especially one that has control over world football, or for that matter, any other sport.
“As for its insistence on submission to the CAS in accordance with its rules, Fifa assumes wrongly that statute 59 effectively blocks all access by its members to courts in their sovereign states… By such agreements, parties do not deny the jurisdiction of the courts and the rule of law, rather they agree that the courts would generally hold the parties to the agreement and the courts generally decline jurisdiction.
“But there are some cases in which the court will not hold the parties to their agreement, and I have already decided that this is one of them.”
If Fifa cannot force members to use the Court of Arbitration for Sports, then it ought to convince them that justice can be served in that arena. The High Court judge said that, in the TTFA’s case, Fifa failed to demonstrate it was ‘ready and willing to do all things necessary to the proper conduct of the arbitration’.
“Fifa refused to pay its share of costs of appeal upfront and the CAS administrators allowed it to flout the rules,” stated Gobin. “Indeed [CAS] indicated that it was not Fifa’s practice to pay its share of the costs.
“[…] If it is the case, as Fifa continues to insist, that it will not accept the jurisdiction of the court of any member country, and that CAS is the only dispute resolution forum that it will recognise; then, given what the evidence has disclosed and which it has not denied—that Fifa generally does not comply with a basic rule regarding the payment its share of the costs of arbitration, even when its non-compliance can have the effect of denying parties access to the arbitration process (as it did in this case)—then there is every danger that Fifa will become a law unto itself, if it hasn’t already become one.”
As such, Fifa’s ‘disregard for the rule of law’ in Trinidad should not trouble local football stakeholders only. It should be a concern to all member associations, as well as the sponsors and patrons of ‘the beautiful game’.
“[Fifa’s] conduct regrettably calls into question the sincerity of its vaunted commitment to achieving its objectives to promote integrity, fair play, and friendly relations in society for humanitarian objectives,” said Gobin, “as well as its commitment to respecting internationally recognised human rights and striving to protect them.
“Disregard for the rule of law is inconsistent with these objectives.”
Gobin noted Fifa’s sustained ‘unrelenting campaign against the TTFA, the overt aim of which was to force it a litigant before the courts of this country to withdraw its case’—all while ‘it remained ensconced in its home in Zurich and as a result will probably manage to escape the consequences of its unlawful behaviour’.
Most bullies, deep down, are cowards. Gobin hinted that Infantino and his gang might be no different.
The High Court judge admitted that the ‘repercussions’ of defying Fifa are ‘worrying’ and sympathised with the players, coaches, and administrators who ‘believe that such far reaching consequences should be avoided, perhaps at all costs’.
However, she did not find fault in Wallace’s legal stance.
“It has to be said that the law expects the TTFA to do what its statutory duty requires, even in the face of unlawful pressure,” said Gobin. “[…] In the circumstances, the TTFA’s actions of seeking redress before the court was perhaps the only appropriate response, which avoided capitulating to the demands of Fifa and thereby elevating the status of Fifa Statutes above the laws passed by our Parliament.”
Over the past eight months, Wallace and the United TTFA failed to win the support of a single Fifa member association, let alone the 25-member Caribbean Football Union (CFU). And the former Secondary Schools Football League (SSFL) president can no longer boast of majority support even within local football circles.
From here on, the court cannot help Wallace, even though normalisation committee chairman Robert Hadad is at least temporarily taken off the chess board.
Wallace’s critics are yet to formally request an extraordinary general meeting. It gives the TTFA president the chance to draw up the agenda and call it himself—and he is hardly likely to propose his own removal. As such, if he is to depart soon, it will be on his own terms.
Will he quit and pass the responsibility for the local body back to the members? Would he attempt to carry on regardless—as Ramdhan suggested recently?
Or, since he is already contesting the TTFA’s suspension in CAS, might he try to fight for an unlikely reinstatement within the Fifa umbrella against the odds?
Whatever happens now, Fifa’s governance issues are laid bare again. The ramifications of Gobin’s judgment are unlikely to disappear with Wallace.