African football will long remember 24 May 2021. Early that day, over a dozen CAF employees, many of them senior executives, learnt that they had lost their positions. No warning had been given. No explanation was provided.
By Philippe Auclair
This sweeping purge, which was executed by the confederation’s new Secretary General, long-time Infantino ally Véron Mosengo-Omba, came on the heels of a confidential report into the Confederation’s administration by the PwC consultancy, which Josimar has seen, which listed numerous failings and advocated radical change. This report, however, is riddled with glaring factual errors, to the point that it can be accused of bias, and calls into question the motivation behind what was dubbed CAF’s ‘Night of the Long Knives’.
As soon as it had become clear that Fifa-backed Patrice Motsepe would replace disgraced Ahmad Ahmad and become CAF’s new president, everyone in Cairo and beyond knew that there would be many substantial changes within the administration of the world’s second-largest confederation. It was not unexpected and it might even have been necessary. Nobody denies that CAF was a right mess.
But not like this. Not to that extent. Not so brutally. Not so cruelly, even.
Early in the morning of Monday 24 May (some say as early at 3 a.m.), emails written and signed by CAF Secretary-General Véron Mosengo-Omba landed in the inboxes of seventeen of CAF’s most senior administrators, informing them that their contracts had been terminated with immediate effect. CAF’s Chief of Staff and Heads of IT, Legal Affairs and Compliance, Finance, and Human Resources, among others, had been told that their services were no longer required. A number of their subordinates also received a similar message. According to information received by Josimar this Monday (June 7), two more high-ranking CAF officials had tendered their resignations over the preceding forty-eight hours. Commercial Director Ali Assaoui and Vice-Secretary General Anthony Baffoe, who was until then in charge of competitions – and this, a matter of days after the Confederation announced that it was postponing the draw of its Africa Cup of Nations Qualifiers, originally planned to take place on 25 June. While Assaoui’s resignation was accepted, it is not yet clear whether Baffoe’s was or not. Everywhere one looks around African football, it is upheaval and chaos.
No warning had been given to the sacked personnel. No interview had taken place. No personal explanation was given, no apology either. Two weeks later, many of the sacked CAF employees still haven’t been able to collect their personal belongings from the offices they occupied until a few days ago. All of them had to sign draconian non-disclosure agreements to be entitled to severance payments. Those who would speak out would be liable to pay huge financial penalties.
Josimar was told by several sources that at least one of the employees who’ve been fired was abroad in the middle of a CAF mission when he learnt of his dismissal. Others discovered their fate through a third party. Almost nothing but a shell was left of the CAF administration. Why take such a drastic measure at a time of unprecedented crisis in the Confederation? And who decided it had to be taken?
Infantino’s Unknown Enforcer
All of the numerous inside sources that Josimar has spoken to in the past couple of weeks agree on one thing: CAF’s newly-installed Secretary General Véron Mosengo-Omba signed the emails, yes, but this didn’t mean that he oversaw the details of the purge. “He is not a born administrator”, as one of them rather mischievously put it. “He is a political appointee, Gianni’s man in Africa, he doesn’t take care of the running of the organisation and I don’t think he’d be able to”, said another. “He’s a smart guy, but he lacks some very basic management skills”, chimes a third one, who adds, “and I’ve been told he’s not enjoying it himself”.
The fact is that it was not Mosengo-Omba who drew the list of ‘indesirables’ who were dispensed with so suddenly. Neither was it his Swiss-Italian assistant Sandra Lattore, who was already working with him in Zurich when he was Fifa’s global Chief Member Associations officer. Lattore, who previously spent over seven years as a low-level commercial manager with luxury goods brand Hugo Boss, joined the legal department of the organisation in 2017, to become Mosengo-Omba’s private assistant in November 2019. Described to us as ‘pleasant and capable’, Lattore deals with her boss’s correspondence and diary – but her mission goes no further.
Still, her appointment illustrated how Fifa now filled positions in African football administration with its own people, something which would have been impossible before the Confederation’s statuses were quietly modified – at Fifa’s behest, it seems – to allow non-Africans to occupy official roles within CAF. Véron Mosengo-Omba, for example, might have been of Congolese origin, but held a Swiss passport; and as the Democratic Republic of Congo doesn’t recognise double nationality, it was as a Swiss citizen that he became CAF’s Secretary-General, something which would have been impossible beforehand. But neither Mosengo-Omba nor his assistant held the knife when the time came to bleed the Confederation of most of its senior executives, even if the execution orders bore Véron’s signature.
Deciding who would have to go was the task of someone whose name has barely ever appeared in print before, but who was described to us as “one of Gianni’s most loyal soldiers”: Luca Piazza. “Piazza doesn’t serve Fifa”, we were told by someone who saw him at work from close, “he serves Gianni”.
Piazza rose from almost complete obscurity in early 2016, when he was hand-picked by Fifa’s new president to join the Fifa Audit & Compliance team, then still under the control of Domenico Scala. Which qualifications Piazza had to be given this position is unclear. Until then, he’d worked in an administrative capacity for Switzerland’s Touring Club (an association which mostly serves motorists) as well as for SGS, a company specialising in quality control, best practice evaluation and certification.
Josimar has learnt that he grew up only a few doors from Infantino in the vaudois village of Trelex, where families of Italian heritage compose the smallest linguistic community in a total population of 1,400. After Scala left Fifa in May 2016, citing the loss of independence of the organisation’s watchdog committees as the reason for his resignation, Piazza’s job was described as ‘Director of Implementation of Governance Reforms’, a job in which capacity he visited Venezuela in 2017, and oversaw the election of the Nigerian FA’s Executive Committee a year later. Interestingly, figures who occupied senior positions in Fifa’s own administration at the time told us that they had no idea that such a position even existed, or what its prerogatives might have been. Neither had any of them dealt directly with Piazza – or, in one case, even knew who he was.
What is known is that Piazza worked closely with Fifa’s Secretary General Fatma Samoura. He followed her to Cairo when she began her six-month mission as ‘Fifa General Delegate For Africa’ on 1 August 2019, also assisted by key Infantino aide Mario Gallavotti, Fifa’s Director of Independent Committees
“The SG [Samoura] did very little work herself”, a CAF executive told Josimar. “People felt it wasn’t worth bothering her most of the time, certainly not before 3 p.m., and went to Piazza and Gallavotti when they had questions to ask, and it’s also to them they answered”. Another added: “Mouad [Hajji, then CAF Secretary General] did not validate any decision which Piazza had not personally approved. Piazza was copied in all the emails, and it is still the case today” – quite a powerful position to be in for a Fifa employee who was never given a specific role or title during his six-month stay in Africa.
“He’s a very cold guy”, we were told by one insider who dealt with Piazza at the time. “He saw his mission with CAF as putting in place structures and a chain of command which are directly copied on Fifa’s”. Piazza’s direct involvement in CAF affairs ceased when Samoura’s mandate expired on 1 February 2020 and was not renewed by CAF as originally planned – a direct challenge to Fifa’s authority, which effectively sealed the fate of then-president Ahmad, later found guilty of breaches of the Fifa Ethics Code and suspended, preventing him to stand in the 2021 CAF presidential elections. But Piazza’s mission was not over yet.
Ensuring that Infantino’s friend and ally Patrice Motsepe won this election in March (a story which Josimar has told in great detail here) was only the first step in Fifa’s de facto takeover of the 54-nation strong organisation. Wholesale changes at the top of every single department of the confederation were required if Fifa were to assume complete control over it.
Heads had to roll, and Piazza, brought back in the African fold by the new Secretary General Véron Mosengo-Omba, was given the task to choose who they belonged to. But he needed grounds on which to base his selection, just as Patrice Motsepe would need to give good reasons to justify the sweeping shake-up of his administration to his Executive Committee. If he wanted to declare war on the structure he’d inherited from Ahmad, he needed a casus belli.
Fortunately, the giant accountancy and ‘professional services’ firm PricewaterwaterhouseCoopers would provide him with just that.
15 May 2021. Gianni Infantino has travelled to Rwandan capital Kigali, where, according to the official agenda, CAF’s Executive Committee is meeting to discuss matters such as “the implementation of the Pan-African Schools Football Championship, the CAF/FIFA Refereeing Agreement and the FIFA-CAF USD 1 billion Infrastructure Development project”.
But Patrice Motsepe has another message to pass on to the members of his Executive Committee, a message he delivers in a calm, unhurried voice. But there is also an edge to his delivery, almost as if what he was issuing was not a warning, but a threat.
“Sometimes, we have to discuss things that are…unpleasant. And we have to deal with them. I want to ask one final question: has anybody not received a copy of the PwC report? Can you raise your hand? [pause] So I’m happy that you’ve seen it, and there’ll be issues we will discuss later privately. But what I want to emphasise is…I have now spent so much time, with the help and guidance of Gianni, in almost all of those meetings with people we need to work with, and the message I received over and over again is […] “you’ve got to clean your house”…We are going to do what is required.”
The ‘report’ Motsepe is referring to bears little resemblance to the forensic dossier the same PwC had compiled in November 2019, which laid bare the haphazard, incompetent, if not downright corrupt running of CAF’s financial affairs. The new ‘analysis’, which Josimar has seen, consists of seven pages of ‘observations’ and eleven pages of ‘recommendations’, which read more like an indictment than an accountant’s report. That is the most striking feature of the document: it is as remarkably light on factual detail as it is remarkably heavy in innuendo.
Quite extraordinarily, PwC made its conclusions and recommendations without interviewing any of the individuals it accuses of incompetence and worse; neither were these individuals given the opportunity to read the report once it had been finalised. The analysts also acknowledge that they might well have not had access to all of the relevant information and documents, and that they, in fact, made no attempt to check whether the elements on which they based their analysis gave a full picture of the situation or not. Neither did they make any verification of the authenticity or validity of the documents they had access to.
PwC themselves were aware of the limitations of their work, as they took the precaution to add in their conclusion that what they compiled was not an audit ‘in the legal sense’, as it had not conformed to the generally accepted norms and standards of such work. They also reminded their readers that ‘PwC [did not offer] opinions’, a breathtaking statement in view of how much of what they’d stated in their report is little more than that: ‘opinions’, judgments often based on flimsy evidence and riddled with factual errors.
Yet it is these flawed findings and recommendations which CAF used as a basis to purge its administration – and to give it a semblance of legitimacy.
The most astonishing claim – which was greeted with derision by all of the insiders Josimar has spoken to – is that it is CAF’s previous Secretary General (and then-commercial director) Abdelmounaïn Bah who instigated the unilateral cancellation, in November 2019, of the infamous $1bn TV contract which CAF had signed with French media giant Lagardère Sport in October 2016, a saga which Josimar explored in great detail in this investigation, one of the, if not the most momentous event of the Ahmad presidency.
How PwC could come to this conclusion stretches belief, when the minutes of the meetings which took place between CAF and Lagardère Sport (LS) clearly show that the discussions were led by then-Secretary General Hajji and Fifa’s Mario Gallavotti (the true architect of the cancellation), and that it was at the request of Hajji – and certainly not Bah – that CAF’s ad hoc Committee took the momentous and, with hindsight, catastrophic decision to part with LS.
Remarkably, Gallavotti’s name does not appear once in PwC’s report, despite the fact that he was the instigator and, by common consent, the main driver of the move. PwC wouldn’t have acted otherwise if their aim had been to exonerate Fifa of any implication – or wrongdoing – in the shambolic affair.
Some of the statements in PwC’s report verge on the libellous. Thus, Bah – the whipping boy, it seems – is said to have established contact with a number of companies in order to sell TV rights for several CAF competitions without opening a tender. PwC adds – nod-nod, wink-wink – that Bah had worked for Lagardère from June 2013 to May 2018, and that the individuals he’d contacted were former colleagues of his.
Now, apart from the fact that almost anyone who is involved in televised sport in Africa today will have had a connection of some kind to the giant of this industry at some point in their career, some basic fact-checking would have shown that precisely none of six companies mentioned in the PwC document were involved in the marketing of TV rights for the Confederation as a result, and that two of them, in fact, never had any contractual relationship of any kind with CAF. It is also Josimar’s understanding that Fifa vetted and validated CAF’s choice of service providers at the time, without ever raising questions of propriety or impropriety. We could go on and on like this.
Another striking feature of the PwC report is that a number of recommendations it makes in its second section had already been implemented within CAF in the wake of the first PwC audit; yet it is based on these recommendations that Piazza and Mosengo-Omba decided to wield the axe almost indiscriminately within the Confederation. A number of departments in the CAF administration had put new practices in place, something which PwC was aware of, as they’d been partnering CAF along the way. Irony of ironies, they had even privately complimented some CAF staff on their work, in several cases the same staff they would give the green light to sack a matter of weeks later.
That CAF was in sore need of a shake-up is not contested. Some departments were chronically understaffed, leading junior personnel to sanction decisions which they had no statutory authority over. Some CAF employees had been working without proper contracts for months. Yet PwC’s recommendations, whilst acknowledging those facts, drew conclusions which put the blame on individuals rather than on structural faults. A recurrent recommendation in their report, for example, is the necessity to “evaluate whether current executives and key personnel are fit to occupy their positions [or not]”, a wording which needs no decoding.
Another recommendation (point 4.3 in the PwC document) caught the eye: the PwC analysts advised CAF to recruit its new ‘qualified personnel’ ‘beyond the local market’ and open each position to ‘international candidates’. We were told that the ‘local market’, in this case, is meant to refer to the whole continent, not just to Egypt, a country in which the Cairo-based confederation had picked a large proportion of its employees until recently. This opened the door to doing away with the traditional model of hiring Africans to take care of African football. “Really? As if we couldn’t find the right people on a continent which has a population of over 1,3 billion?”, observed a CAF administrator when we mentioned this recommendation to him. “This is an insult to us”.
It is hard not to notice that it is also giving carte blanche to CAF to appoint personnel who’d been in Fifa’s employment until then, in Zurich or elsewhere.
In the meantime, Josimar has learnt from third parties that contracts worth millions of dollars have been sitting unsigned in Mosengo-Omba’s inbox. CAF, which is in sore need of resources, is bound to pay a very heavy price for its re-organisation. But in Fifa’s eyes, the price is worth paying if the end result is almost complete control over the confederation’s affairs. The screw has been tightened – but it is African football which is left gasping for air.