GENEVA (AP) — After declaring FIFA's image crisis over four months ago, questions are being raised about Gianni Infantino as he heads to world soccer's next big election.
The FIFA president will be a guest in Athens on Wednesday as his former UEFA colleagues vote to replace Michel Platini, who was ousted after the FIFA ethics committee banned him for taking a $2 million payment from Sepp Blatter.
The favorite to become the next UEFA president is Aleksander Ceferin of Slovenia, who was so little known before the campaign that many wonder if Infantino and his staff have intervened to support him. Ceferin will be up against UEFA vice president Michael van Praag of the Netherlands, an outspoken critic of Blatter in recent years.
"I am neutral. The FIFA president is neutral in any election at confederation level," Infantino said. "This is very clear."
Infantino said his staff also has not acted, dismissing reports in Dutch and Scandinavian media that one of his FIFA advisers, who is from Norway, has lobbied for Ceferin. Van Praag reportedly sought a meeting in May in Milan to ask Infantino if he had chosen sides.
Ceferin's campaign for UEFA president emerged in May, soon after Infantino joined his former UEFA colleagues on a trip to Slovenia to open a national soccer center. Weeks later, FIFA appointed Tomaz Vesel as an independent auditor overseeing its billion-dollar annual income — and Infantino's salary and bonuses. Vesel is also from Slovenia and plays on a veterans' soccer team with Ceferin.
Mark Pieth, a former FIFA reform adviser, said he was skeptical of claims that Infantino has changed the FIFA culture after years of scandal and murky decision-making.
"There is no 'new FIFA,'" Pieth told The Associated Press. "It's a bit of a variation on what we have been used to. Here, it's blatant cronyism."
UEFA is the richest and most influential of soccer's six continental bodies. It organizes the Champions League, which showcases most of the world's best players. The European Championship draws a global TV audience for the final that is more than double that of the Super Bowl.
The next UEFA president will serve the final 2½ years of Platini's term. The winner also becomes a FIFA vice president, helps shape strategy in the FIFA Council, and supports Infantino in urgent rulings made by the confederation heads.
Infantino came to power after a cycle of turmoil that started in May 2015 when American and Swiss federal authorities revealed an investigation into bribery and corruption. A generation of FIFA leaders were removed from office, including Blatter and one-time protege Platini.
Van Praag, a former club president of four-time European champion Ajax, is an election veteran compared to Ceferin. He opposed Blatter for the FIFA presidency in 2015, defying a UEFA strategy to unseat the incumbent but struggled to get support from his colleagues. He withdrew days before the vote, leaving Prince Ali of Jordan as the sole challenger.
Ceferin, a criminal lawyer, joined the board of Olimpija Ljubljana before being elected Slovenian soccer federation president in 2011. He later joined the FIFA disciplinary committee.
The 48-year-old Ceferin is untainted by FIFA's past excesses, but his clear link to Vesel, the governing body's new audit and compliance committee chairman, has caused concern.
FIFA rules state the job of overseeing how it earns and spends its World Cup revenue can only go to a person with no "material financial relationship" to a member federation. It was done until May by Domenico Scala, a pharmaceutical industry executive who resigned amid disputes with Infantino, including a no-bonus rule for the president.
Vesel, however, could within days be responsible for setting the FIFA salary of his teammate on the soccer team in the Slovene capital.
Pieth, a compliance expert, said the Slovenia link was "less camouflaged" than in the Blatter era.
"There is a personal friendship," Pieth told the AP. "There's not a general rule against that kind of thing but it's simple patronage. It's clear."
Infantino dismissed such doubts when asked if the institutional independence of Vesel, Slovenia's state auditor, could be compromised by his connection to Ceferin.
"Everyone plays football, everybody loves football," Infantino said last week. "It's good that people (who) love football work in football as well.
"I just hope that the one who will be elected will work in a positive way with me as well," Infantino added. "A strong FIFA needs a strong UEFA."