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After surviving corruption crises, Olympics and soccer move to let presidents stay longer in power

UEFA plans to amend its statutes on presidential term limits — something already done by FIFA for president Gianni Infantino in relative secrecy in Moscow in 2018

FIFA President Gianni Infantino
FIFA President Gianni Infantino speaks during the Copa America 2024 group stage draw ceremony in Miami, Florida, USA, December 07 2023.CRISTOBAL HERRERA-ULASHKEVICH (EFE)

When the Olympic movement and international soccer lived through very public corruption crises, both agreed to limit the terms of their presidents in an effort to protect them in the future. All are on track now to roll back the policy.

Limiting their presidents to 12 years in office was an attempt to curb the power cliques and patronage that can let misconduct flourish.

The International Olympic Committee did it after the Salt Lake City bidding scandal broke 25 years ago and FIFA eventually followed after being tainted by another wave of bribery allegations in 2015.

This pillar of good governance is currently facing pushback within the IOC and European soccer body UEFA, which are moving toward letting their presidents, Thomas Bach and Aleksander Čeferin, respectively, have 16 or 15 years in the top job.

Ahead of its annual congress in February, UEFA plans to amend its statutes on presidential term limits — something already done by FIFA for president Gianni Infantino in relative secrecy in Moscow in 2018.

“It reminds me a bit of Putin,” former FIFA anti-corruption advisor Mark Pieth told The Associated Press in a telephone interview this week, comparing the moves to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin has overseen constitutional changes that could see him stay as president from 2000 to 2036, with just a four-year sideways step from 2008-12 to be prime minister when he hardly relinquished power.

“When we worked with the original FIFA reforms, (term limits) was one of the essential points,” said Pieth, whose advice to the soccer body starting in 2011 was capping senior officials at two four-year mandates like the United States presidency. “Otherwise you are inviting in corruption.” UEFA did not directly respond to Pieth’s comments.

Pieth is a law professor from Switzerland, the tax-friendly country that is home to the IOC, FIFA and UEFA — organizations he described as “autocratic regimes” with little or no oversight.

“If a regime is there too long it solidifies and excludes others. There is a logic in this that you don’t stay eternally,” Pieth said.

When the Salt Lake scandal revealed IOC members getting an array of perks and privileges, their then-president Juan Antonio Samaranch was in office for 18 years.

At FIFA, Sepp Blatter was elected in 1998 and won again 13 years later when a bribery scandal implicated former allies that opposed him. His presidency ended after 17 years in fallout from a sweeping investigation of bribery in soccer by the U.S. Department of Justice.

When the IOC and FIFA went through their respective root-and-branch reforms, in 2000 and 2015, future presidents Bach and Infantino were key players in the process.

Bach, Infantino and Čeferin were all lawyers before they were elected to leadership roles that give them access to heads of state and — in the soccer jobs — pay around $3 million annually. The IOC pays Bach 275,000 euros ($300,000) to cover some personal expenses.

Term limits “are making a lot of sense and are necessary,” Bach said in October after some IOC members asked how the Olympic Charter could change to let him have an extra four years through 2029. They cited a need for stability in times of a pandemic and war.

Still, Bach told the IOC’s 100 voting members their request to keep him in office despite the rules “went straight to my heart,” and he has since declined to dismiss the proposal. IOC members next meet in July in Paris.

The French capital also will host UEFA’s 55 member countries on Feb. 8 for an expected vote that would let Čeferin stand again in 2027.

Čeferin and Infantino both were elected in 2016 to replace disgraced presidents — Michel Platini and Blatter, respectively — who were removed early in fallout from the American and Swiss investigations of FIFA.

By starting their presidencies with partial three-year mandates, Čeferin and Infantino were due to have a maximum of 11 years. By tweaking legal statutes so that the first three years don’t count toward the limit, their presidencies can extend to 15 years.

UEFA said in a statement this week its executive committee, chaired by Čeferin on Dec. 2 in Hamburg, Germany, approved a proposal to “clarify some existing provisions to ensure that none are applicable retroactively — in line with a basic legal principle.”

UEFA did not announce the proposal in its post-meeting news release and has not said why it is wanted. The European soccer body also has not held a news conference after any of its six executive meetings in 2023.

“The feeling is that they are all the same,” Pieth said of the wealthy sports bodies. “Even worse is UEFA — they seemed relatively OK until now.”

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