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MANAMA (Reuters) - FIFA has given no explanation for ousting the two heads of its Ethics Committee, but the move has led some to point the finger at president Gianni Infantino and left those hoping for reform at world football's governing body feeling uneasy.
FIFA's decision not to renew the mandate of chief ethics investigator Cornel Borbely and chief ethics judge Hans-Joachim Eckert - the men who banned former FIFA head Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini from the game - came at Tuesday's meeting of its ruling council.
None of the council members had time to explain the decision to the media on their way out of the meeting, instead hurrying onto a bus to go for dinner at a five-star hotel in the Bahraini capital.
There some spoke off the record about an administrative hiccup, with the Ethics heads having forgotten to put forward their nominations, while others suggested the pair were too costly for the organisation. There was also talk that the Ethics Committee was seen as too 'Euro-centric'. Eckert is German and Borbely is Swiss.
These arguments were dismissed by the pair themselves, however, when they spoke to media on Wednesday in a sparse room overlooking the venue for FIFA's congress on Thursday.
They warned that the move would lead to valuable knowledge and experience being lost as their replacements, Colombian investigator Maria Claudia Rojas and judge Vassilios Skouris of Greece, will start from scratch on "several hundred" cases.
FIFA's list of nominations for committee heads also indicated the removal of Miguel Maduro, a former government minister in Portugal, who had been head of the Governance Committee, which had a key role on reforms.
Rumours of the changes had been circulating for a while but, typically of the FIFA world, had been dismissed as gossip just a few weeks ago.
In late March, FIFA general secretary Fatma Samoura told Switzerland’s Tages-Anzeiger newspaper there was no basis to reports that Borbely and Eckert would be axed.
German FA president Reinhard Grindel, a member of the Council, said he had received a similar message when he checked with Samoura's office on Monday this week if anything was planned against the Ethics Committee heads.
"I asked the day before at the office of the General Secretary if there were any announcements that Borbely and Eckert will be displaced and they said no, they had no information."
Nevertheless, Grindel, who defended his compatriot Eckert at the meeting, had no doubt who was behind the decision.
"You have to ask Infantino why he made this proposal," he said. "It is a decision of the president."
But Infantino himself has been silent on the reasons behind the moves.
"The concern is that it is a purge for reasons of self-interest from the FIFA president," said reform campaigner Jamie Fuller of campaign group 'New FIFA Now' who compared the Swiss to his compatriot Blatter.
"The decisions of the Council and so many actions of Mr Infantino’s administration are no more trustworthy than his predecessors," he said.
On the other hand, at least one supporter of Infantino defended Tuesday's decision, with CONCACAF's Canadian president Victor Montagliani rejecting Borbely and Eckert's view that their replacement marked the death of reforms.
"With all due respect to their opinions I don't believe that at all... Yes, the ethics committees are very important but it's not like we replaced them with non-independent people," he said.
"It's been way overblown from a hype perspective. Maybe it's my Canadian background, I'm a little uncomfortable when judges start speaking in the media, either during their tenureship or even after their tenureship. I think that is quite unprofessional, quite frankly," he said.
Montagliani was talking after a press conference promoting the bid of three CONCACAF members - the United States, Canada and Mexico - to host the 2026 World Cup.
The men in charge of FIFA's ethics campaign may be out of a job, but the business of football's global body continues.
(The story was refiled to correct the newspaper spelling to Tages-Anzeiger, not Tagesanziger, in paragraph 9)
Editing by Hugh Lawson