Long-time FIFA legal director Villiger leaves

GENEVA (AP) — FIFA’s long-time legal director who was a key link to its American lawyers during federal investigations of corruption has left soccer’s world body.

Marco Villiger, now the deputy secretary general for administrative matters, left the organization on Monday, FIFA said in a statement announcing the exit of its highest-ranking official to stay in office during recent years of turmoil.

Villiger, who joined FIFA in 2002, said in the brief statement he was “seeking for new challenges” after a successful World Cup in Russia.

He was the main official on former president Sepp Blatter’s staff to remain and have continuing influence during investigations by United States and Swiss federal prosecutors which were revealed in May 2015 and are ongoing.

Within days, Blatter reluctantly announced his intention to resign, and he has since been critical of the Swiss lawyer’s role in FIFA’s transition.

Villiger was responsible for hiring legal firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart and Sullivan to protect FIFA’s interests even before sweeping indictments were published. In 2014, the New York Daily News had reported former FIFA executive committee member Chuck Blazer was cooperating with American federal authorities.

Working with FIFA’s American lawyers and advisers, Villiger helped to oversee internal investigations of staff and portray the embattled soccer body to U.S. authorities as a victim of corruption instead of complicit. FIFA later applied for tens of millions of dollars in restitution from assets forfeited by soccer and marketing officials who have pleaded guilty of bribery linked to broadcasting and commercial rights deals.

Blatter told reporters in March this year he was “totally disappointed” with Villiger, whom he had regarded as a loyal confidant with detailed knowledge of FIFA’s business.

“He knew it. All contracts went on his desk and he was the secretary of all the committees of FIFA,” Blatter said of Villiger, who was promoted when Gianni Infantino was elected FIFA president in 2016. “He (Villiger) was the man who had all the power and Gianni was intelligent enough to keep him.”

Infantino and Villiger had worked together in late-2015 on a FIFA panel drafting reforms seen as essential to rebuild its credibility amid further criminal indictments and extraditions of soccer officials from Switzerland to the United States.

Infantino was then the CEO-like general secretary at European soccer body UEFA, whose other delegate on the panel was its own longstanding legal director Alasdair Bell. The Scottish lawyer is a likely contender for the FIFA vacancy.

Still, the removal and exits of nearly all Blatter-era management from Infantino’s FIFA added to the perception, fueled by persistent rumors, that Villiger would soon leave.

The next FIFA legal director can expect a busy workload. Infantino is enthusiastic about a $25 billion Saudi Arabia-backed offer to take an ownership stake in some FIFA competitions that has been opposed by European soccer leaders.

FIFA is also under pressure to defend Qatari-owned World Cup rights holder BeIN Sports whose broadcasting signal has been pirated by Saudi interests as part of a wider diplomatic dispute.

FIFA secretary general Fatma Samoura said Monday that Villiger “has been a pillar of the organization.”

“I congratulate him wholeheartedly on his great career within FIFA,” Samoura said, adding “he has consistently demonstrated his expertise and professionalism, as well as his dedication to this great organization.”