Last month, Fifa banned Confederation of African Football (Caf) president Ahmad for five years after ruling that he had breached various codes of ethics. BBC Sport Africa – which broke the news of Ahmad’s impending ban in October – details the reasons for the Fifa vice-president’s sanction and why a second Fifa investigation is already under way:
Just minutes after being re-elected Fifa president for a second term in Paris in June 2019, Gianni Infantino made a triumphant declaration before the world’s assembled football leaders.
“Nobody talks about crisis at Fifa any more,” he said, referring to how Fifa’s corruption scandal had dominated when he took charge in 2016.
“Nobody talks about scandals or corruption. We talk about football… [Fifa] is now synonymous with transparency and integrity.”
But even as he spoke, serious accusations had already surfaced against one of Fifa’s vice-presidents, albeit not in relation to his role with world football’s governing body.
That vice-president was Ahmad, the head of African football’s ruling body Caf.
Only a day was needed for the comments to come back to haunt Infantino.
Twenty-four hours later, Ahmad was being questioned by anti-corruption authorities in the French capital “as part of a probe into corruption, breach of trust and forgery.”
The 60-year-old from Madagascar has always denied any wrongdoing.
But on 23 November, 20 months on from a complaint being raised by former Caf secretary general Amr Fahmy, the Caf president was banned and fined $220,000 by Fifa.
Fifa – which had worked alongside Caf in its Egyptian headquarters between August 2019 and February 2020 in a bid to improve governance – had adjudged Ahmad to have broken various codes of its ethics. These included abuse of position; misappropriation of funds; and offering gifts.
Ahmad has since said he will appeal to sport’s highest legal body, the Court of Arbitration for Sport, labelling Fifa’s decision “incomprehensible and shocking” and saying it had been made with “haste” – in order, he contended – to prevent him from being “re-elected to the presidency of Caf.”
Nonetheless, Ahmad had asked Fifa if it could wrap up his ethics case by 12 November – the deadline for presidential candidates to formally declare ahead of March’s elections, which the Malagasy had been hoping to contest.
Indeed, only six weeks ago, he had received the public backing of 46 of Africa’s 54 football associations.
As a result, this first investigation was narrowed down in a bid to meet the deadline – even if it fell short by nearly two weeks, after Ahmad’s bout of coronavirus delayed matters.
For Fifa’s ethics chamber has made the rare step of splitting its investigation into Ahmad into two parts.
The second of these probes – focusing on an amendment made last year to the billion-dollar media and marketing TV deal Caf made with French company Lagardere in 2015 – is already under way.
Explaining last month’s sanctions, Fifa said its investigation into Ahmad “concerned various Caf-related governance issues, including the organisation and financing of an Umrah pilgrimage to Mecca, his involvement in Caf’s dealings with Tactical Steel, and other activities.”
Few further details were given. But following its own investigation, BBC Sport Africa can explain some of the reasons – and circumstances – that brought down a sitting Caf president for the first time.
These include unexplained payments, questions surrounding potential kick-back arrangements and possible tax evasion – as well as a religious trip that resulted in an unholy mess.
Between 2017 and 2019, Fifa ruled that there were unaccounted payments from Caf to Ahmad’s private bank account. These came to a total of around $230,000.
During the course of two audits conducted by PriceWaterhouse Coopers (PwC) in late 2019 and early 2020 on behalf of Fifa, neither Ahmad, nor Caf itself, could account for the nature of the payments, a source who has seen the Fifa ethics report explained.
Neither Ahmad nor Caf made any comment when contacted by the BBC.
The payments are not believed to be related to his salary of $40,000 per month, nor the $80,000 he received in bonuses every year.
A key tenet of Ahmad’s presidential campaign in 2017 was his stated desire for financial transparency, with his manifesto claiming that all contracts signed by Caf would be officially published.
“Nothing will be hidden or covered during my mandate,” Ahmad’s manifesto had proclaimed.
But this did not materialise – to the point where annual financial reports, which could be found on Caf’s website in the final years of the three-decade reign of Ahmad’s predecessor Issa Hayatou, have not been published online.
A further lack of financial transparency came during Caf’s dealings with a French company, called Tactical Steel, that specialises in manufacturing gym equipment but which became a key supplier to Fifa’s second largest confederation in late 2017.
In October 2018, a company called ES Pro Consulting Limited sent a bill to Caf for $738,670.
This was in relation to shipping costs involved in the distribution of 60,000 footballs to Africa.
A month later, in November 2018, Caf transferred its payment to a bank account nominated by ES Pro Consulting Limited.
There was, though, one fundamental issue. ES Pro Consulting Limited did not exist in 2018.
Records show that the company, based in the United Arab Emirates, was only incorporated nine months later, in July 2019. So how could a company that did not exist be sending invoices?
What was also of note was that a Dubai-based company was invoicing for a business deal agreed between Caf and Tactical Steel, a once-obscure gym manufacturer located in Toulon in southern France.
The deal related to an order made by Ahmad for the delivery of 60,000 footballs, with one thousand going to every one of Africa’s 54 member associations.
This order was never discussed by Caf’s decision-making Executive Committee (ExCo), BBC Sport Africa understands, nor was it cheap – amounting to $2.5m in total, of which $1.77m was for the footballs with the rest for shipping.
This deal was mentioned as early as 9 February 2018 in an email from Caf’s then deputy general secretary, who said the order was ‘on the instruction of the president’, to Tactical Steel owner Romuald Seillier.
Seillier is an old friend of Ahmad’s former attaché Loic Gerand, who has twice been declared bankrupt in France where he is currently serving a 15-year ban from running a company.
The pair – both of whom have had offices on the same road in Toulon – served for five years together in the French army, BBC Sport Africa understands.
In March 2018, a month after Caf’s email discussing the balls deal, Seillier set up ES Pro Consulting in his home town of Toulon, along with a former rugby player called Laurent Emmanuelli.
Over a year later, the pair also established ES Pro Consulting Limited (emphasis added) in a free zone, which offers tax concessions and customs duty benefits to expatriate investors, in Dubai.
When it came to making payment for the footballs, both ES Pro Consulting companies and Tactical Steel all received money – a significant chunk of which was sent back to Caf with different instructions.
Even though Tactical Steel had been paid half the costs for the balls ($885,060) and shipping ($369,335) in May 2018, invoices for the full order ($2.5m) came – on the same day in October 2018 – from ES Pro Consulting (France) for the balls and ES Pro Consulting Limited (Dubai) for the shipping.
“Why issue the balls invoice and the shipping invoice from different entities?” Caf’s then finance director Mohamed El Sherei asked Fifa as he also sent them a dossier of evidence prior to Infantino’s speech. “Why transfer the money to two different bank accounts for one same operation?”
Days after receiving the invoices, Caf transferred its outstanding dues – totalling $1.25m – to Tactical Steel themselves but this money was returned in November, stating “this account is not the destined account” and asking for the funds to be sent to banks nominated by both ES Pro Consulting’s instead.
In early November, $1.25m was paid to ES Pro Consulting Limited in Dubai who then returned the funds relating to the footballs ($885,060) a month later. In late December, Caf then transferred $889,412 to ES Pro Consulting in France, so ending a confusing merry-go-round of transactions.
By the time it had all shaken out, both ES Pro Consulting companies and Tactical Steel had received in excess of $4.6m for the balls deal – $2.1m of which had been sent back to Caf with different instructions as to where the money should be sent.
“The refunds from Tactical Steel and ES Pro Consulting … are highly suspicious which could potentially indicate a kick-back arrangement between parties involved or a case of tax evasion through off-shore payments,” PwC said in their audit dated November 2019.
Neither Seillier nor Emmanuelli responded when contacted by the BBC.
As reported by BBC Sport Africa in a joint investigation with Norway’s Josimar magazine last year, Caf’s dealings with Tactical Steel raised other questions.
These originated after Fahmy informed Fifa of Caf’s decision, taken in December 2017, to cancel an order with sportswear company Puma worth just under $250,000 – which came with a 60% discount – to take up a slightly larger one with Tactical Steel.
The order may have increased from 22,000 items to 35,000, with a demand for Caf branding also added, but the bill of $1,015,313 was disproportionately higher – over four times as big – and excluded shipping (unlike Puma’s).
The costs related to shipping and packaging added at least $225,000 to the Tactical Steel deal, on top of the original equipment quote of just over $1m.
To put this into context, Caf’s previous sportswear equipment deal – which had expired a few months before Ahmad was elected president in March 2017 – had seen the African body receive, rather than spend, money, with Adidas agreeing a deal from 2008-2016 that paid Caf at least $13m.
In December 2017, a series of Caf emails indicated that Ahmad was across both the Puma cancellation and the Tactical Steel order as Caf tried to secure kit for the next month’s African Nations Championship (Chan) in Morocco.
- 18 December: Caf’s then deputy general secretary notifies secretary general Fahmy of the Puma order’s cancellation – upon ‘the president’s request’.
- 19 December: Caf’s then financial director thanks Seillier, copying in Ahmad’s private email, for Tactical Steel’s quote – “which has been approved by the President of Caf.”
Nonetheless, Ahmad told the BBC last year that any accusations of his involvement in cancelling the Puma deal and approving the Tactical Steel one were ‘totally false, malicious and defamatory‘ – blaming the allegations on a vendetta on the part of Fahmy, who died of cancer earlier this year.
Between December 2017 and January 2019, Caf made net payments totalling some $4.4m to Tactical Steel, with deals having also been arranged for the 2018 Beach Soccer tournament and the 2018 Women’s Africa Cup of Nations.
The investigation by French anti-corruption authorities, whose assistance Fifa has sought in the past, into the matter is ongoing.
In February 2018, the Union of Arab Football Associations (UAFA) invited Ahmad and Africa’s FA presidents to undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca called the Umrah – which can take place at any time of the year (unlike the Hajj).
Despite the invitation by the UAFA, internal Caf emails state that the trip to Saudi Arabia was a “personalised invitation” by Ahmad himself to the Muslim presidents of Africa’s football associations.
After 15 such presidents joined Ahmad, his attaché Gerand and another presidential advisor on the May 2018 trip, the question remained at Caf as to who was to settle the bill of just over $100,000.
When then finance director El Sherei asked Caf’s compliance director in July, in an email entitled “Omra Trip expenses”, who would pay for accommodation and travel relating to the trip, the response was not what he expected.
In his own reply, the compliance director – Abdoulah Moustapha – retitled the email, crossing out Omra Trip expenses and replacing it with “Mission: Meeting request at Caf HQ in Cairo”.
He then wrote that Caf would “take charge of accommodations and travel” to and from Cairo from the presidents’ respective home nations while the person who gave the order – i.e. Ahmad – would cover the Egypt-Saudi Arabia return legs owing to the “private” nature of the trip.
“This is not a matter of compliance but purely of payment,” Mustapha added.
“What is the role of compliance?” El Sherei told BBC Sport Africa. “It’s to make regulation and supervise working and implementing regulations – not giving approval of payment to a finance director or general secretary or similar.
“On the next visit of the Caf President, he was furious with me. How could I ask this question (regarding payment for the trip)?”
Mustapha said he was unable to give any comment to the BBC at this time given Ahmad’s appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
In the end, Caf paid just over $90,000 for a trip that cost $101,314 – with Ahmad himself contributing the remaining $10,000, but no more.
As the trip was religious in nature and not football-related, Fifa deemed it a misuse of funds as well as an offering of gifts.
In July 2019, a few weeks after joining Fahmy in making allegations of corruption within Caf to Fifa, El Sherei, who had worked for Caf since 1999, was dismissed by the organisation – just as Fahmy himself had been, less than a fortnight after his email to Fifa’s ethics chamber.
As stated, Ahmad is appealing his ban.
He faces a race against time and several legal hurdles if he is to stand for re-election next March, but the possibility remains that he could face another sanction if Fifa’s second investigation finds against him.
It is unclear whether the fact that Ahmad received two sets of expenses, as he claimed to be in two different countries (Russia and Egypt) for the same nine-day period during the 2018 World Cup, forms part of this second investigation.
What is known is that the former Madagascar FA president is also being investigated about his role in a decision by Caf to amend a billion-dollar TV contract, signed in 2015, early last year.
Fifa is keen to understand why Caf apparently agreed to buy around $20m of debt owed by a Beninois sports agency called LC2 GROUP to Lagardere Sports, the French company that had been handling Caf’s marketing and media sales until the contract was abruptly cancelled last year.
Under an amendment, signed in early 2019, to the original 2015 deal between Lagardere and Caf, the latter agreed to pay Lagardere $6.7m for the debt, all of which relates to outstanding TV rights payments, owed by LC2 GROUP.
This latest Fifa investigation is not only probing Ahmad’s part in the LC2 GROUP decision but also that of the Malagasy’s stand-in as president, DR Congo’s Constant Omari, Caf’s first vice-president who headed up the delegation dealing with Lagardere.
Neither Ahmad, Omari, Caf nor Lagardere responded to questions when contacted by the BBC.
Given Fifa’s second investigation, the turmoil shows no signs of abating for Caf whose winner of March’s presidential elections will face a mountainous task in terms of restoring both trust and credibility in the organisation.