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The Pope, a £50m jet, the oligarch and the head of FIFA’s frantic fight

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This material belongs to: Daily Mail.

It was the curious case of The Pope, a Russian oligarch and the FIFA president charged with cleaning up a rotten institution. And it might have brought down FIFA leader Gianni Infantino almost before he got started.

It was only in February 2016 that Infantino was elected to the top job, replacing the disgraced Sepp Blatter and promising a new start for the beleaguered federation.

He even flew by EasyJet to his first meeting in Cardiff in March 2016 to emphasise his distance from the old regime. It was a significant gesture; the winds of change were blowing, surely?

Yet within two months Infantino began to enjoy the lavish lifestyle to which FIFA presidents have been accustomed. And ironically it was a trip to see The Pope that threatened his downfall, taken on a £50million private jet, first from last year’s Champions League final in Milan to Rome, then home to Geneva.

The meeting with Pope Francis was shown on TV. ‘With soccer, go forward showing honesty and cleanliness,’ the pontiff told Infantino. ‘We want to do just that,’ he replied.

Some within FIFA were less than impressed. Within days a private written complaint had been made, by a credible FIFA insider, suggesting the jet was owned by the enormously powerful Uzbek-born Russian billionaire, Alisher Usmanov, best known in Britain for owning 30 per cent of Arsenal. The plane was a Dassault Falcon 7X, with a unique tail number of LX-USM, bearing the initials of Usmanov’s company USM Holdings.

A FIFA insider has told an intermediary in contact with The Mail on Sunday that Infantino did not initially inform FIFA’s compliance department about the flight. That appears to be a breach of FIFA rules which state: ‘Any member of the FIFA family shall inform FIFA compliance department in the event that an invitation to join an aircraft — other than aircraft chartered by FIFA itself — will be accepted.’

In fact, whistleblowers at FIFA had alerted the ethics committee to multiple issues surrounding Infantino. A leaked internal FIFA memo shows he was probed over expenses, using different private jets, alleged breaches of governance rules, wrongly dismissing employees and seemingly lavish use of funds.

The memo, obtained by The MoS, said usage of the jets ‘bears a significant risk of conflict of interest’. Taking favours from any businessman might be against the rules, but from Usmanov, so integrated into Russian sport and so close to Russian president Vladimir Putin, could have been more troubling still.

Usmanov is even part of Russia’s independent public anti-doping commission, established in 2016 by Putin, charged with examining widespread allegations of state-supported doping. He has also served on the organising committee of Russia 2018, next year’s World Cup.

As it transpired, Infantino was ‘cleared’, none of the accusations adjudged to be a violation of FIFA rules. Last year, FIFA ethics prosecutor Robert Torres explained in detail why.

He said the jet for the Pope trip was owned by Leon Semenenko, a friend of Infantino. Torres said Semenenko had purchased it two years previously from Usmanov.

‘The indirect ties of the relationship between Mr Semenenko and Mr Usmanov were not sufficiently close enough to be considered in the light of the ‘conflict of interest’ principle,’ Torres concluded. Infantino was thus in the clear.

However, the MoS has established Infantino remained under investigation by ethics unit staff, around the jet issue and other matters. Concerns persisted over links to Usmanov. Then investigations came to an end when FIFA ethics judge Hans-Joachim Eckert and chief investigator Cornel Borbely were replaced last month.

A separate MoS investigation has revealed new information, including an apparent change in ownership of LX-USM in the very month Infantino used it.

The Directorate of Civil Aviation in Luxembourg shows changes of plane ownership between between May 12, 2016 and June 21, 2016 from a company called Klaret 7x Limited to Timberland 7x Limited.

Klaret 7x Limited is registered in the Cayman Islands, so it is impossible to see who owned it. However, in the UK there is company called Klaret Services Ltd and its company accounts, published in August 2016, say that company ‘is controlled by Klaret Holdings Limited, a company registered in the British Virgin Islands. The ultimate controlling party is considered by directors to be Mr A Usmanov by virtue of his stake in Klaret Holdings Ltd.’

The Panama Papers lists Usmanov as the ultimate beneficiary of a company called Klaret (Antibes) Ltd.

There was an additional mystery though. Inquiries to the Cayman Islands General Registry show that Klaret 7X and Timberland 7X are the same company, sharing the same company number, 251099. The plane hadn’t changed ownership at all; the name of the company had simply changed.

When we offered to present this new evidence to the FIFA ethics commission on Friday, we received a cursory statement saying the case was closed.

Shortly after we received a call from an associate of Infantino saying our information was irrelevant. The gist was that even if Usmanov did own the jet when Infantino flew on it, the issue was whether he believed Semenenko owned it. The conclusion: it was right to clear him.

Later, we had a call from Semenenko himself, appearing to clear up the mystery.

‘The plane is mine since 2014,’ he said. ‘Our families, me and Gianni Infantino, we have been friends for years… I offered him a lift from Milan to Rome because I was going there for a party and he was doing this Pope thing. Then I stayed in Rome and I let him take the plane back to Geneva.’

He said he bought the company Klaret 7X, in 2014, although not from Usmanov, despite it apparently being linked to him. And while reporters briefed by FIFA initially wrote that Semenenko bought the jet from Usmanov, Semenenko said this was not the case, but declined to say who he bought it from.

A spokesman for Usmanov said he did not own the plane, nor operate it. Asked if Usmanov had ever owned it, he said: ‘I don’t know if he did, actually. I think it might have been related. It wasn’t his.’

When Semenenko was asked if it was Usmanov’s originally, he said: ‘I think, correct, probably.’ Semenenko says he spoke to FIFA last year. ‘I spent at least two hours on the phone with this special investigator,’ he said. He says he has since sold the plane.

Semenenko was able to shed some light on FIFA’s ruling that the links between Usmanov and himself were ‘indirect’ and not sufficiently close enough to come under ‘conflict of interest’.

‘I worked for him more than 10 years ago,’ Semenenko said. ‘He is my mentor in business. Then some years ago I started to work in the bank. [Round Bank which he bought from Usmanov]. Sometimes we are co-investors in certain project. We are close.’

Fortunately for Infantino, the ethics committee has decided not ‘sufficiently close.’