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ZURICH (Reuters) - Younger than some professional footballers, Swiss attorney Cornel Borbely is at first sight an unlikely choice as the man to step into Michael Garcia's shoes and try to keep corruption out of FIFA.
A disillusioned Garcia, the former U.S. attorney with a long track record in complicated, international, high profile cases, resigned in December, saying he felt he was no longer making progress and that football's governing body "lacked leadership."
Widely regarded as the man most likely to get to the root of FIFA's problems, Garcia's departure was seen as another sign that the organization was incapable of reforming itself.
Borbely, who has enjoyed a remarkably swift rise through the Swiss legal world, has landed the role as FIFA's chief ethics investigator at the age of 36, having been promoted from his previous role as Garcia’s deputy.
In football terms, he is like a young coach who has made a good start to his career with middle-ranking teams and has now been appointed to lead a large, volatile, internationally renowned club with an army of fickle supporters.
In his first interview with international media, Borbely told Reuters he would not be pushed around and rejected suggestions he will act on FIFA president Sepp Blatter's orders.
“This is absurd and any such claim is not founded in any facts that I could comprehend or cite. I can only emphasise that I am not an employee of FIFA,” he said.
"I run my own law firm and I don’t take any orders at all from FIFA -- none whatsoever. I alone decide whether to open, conduct and conclude an investigation and on its result.
"I am completely independent of any FIFA officials. Otherwise I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, do this job. Nobody interferes -- neither the (FIFA) executive committee nor anybody else."
He added: "My contact to the executive committee is purely professional. Some of these contacts have become public, but it is imperative for my independence that they remain professional, otherwise I could not fulfil my mandate.
"I can’t disclose details of how often I have met with Sepp Blatter, but my contacts with him are limited to purely professional encounters. He has no authority to give directives to me.”
A physically imposing figure who headed an economic crimes investigation unit in Zurich for three years and has worked as a prosecutor for a military tribunal, Borbely has accepted what is seen by many as a thankless job with little to gain.
Asked about his motivation, Borbely talked about the “fairness of the sport” and said he was also eager to apply his experience as a prosecutor and criminal lawyer to sports.
He also warned there would be no quick fix.
“It’s going to take a lot longer than a few months of good work to show that we are highly professional, but that is our aim,” he said.
“Our work is conducted with a high degree of professionalism, is of high quality and efficient, and I believe we are a credible team.
"I have few illusions that it will be quite some time, especially in these turbulent times, before that is recognized.”
FIFA has been plagued by a wave of scandals and controversy, ranging from allegations of corruption in the 2018/2022 World Cup bidding process to a row over $25,000 watches given as gifts to executive committee members at the World Cup in Brazil.
Garcia resigned after a disagreement with Hans-Joachim Eckert, head of the ethics committee's judgement chamber, over the handling of his report into the process which led to the 2018 World Cup being awarded to Russia and 2022 finals to Qatar.
But his probe led to investigations being opened against a number of individuals, which have been left to Borbely to follow through, and a redacted version of Garcia's report will be published at an undisclosed date.
Borbely said he could not reveal the individuals under investigation, although the names have been widely published in the media.
"It is imperative and an integral part of the professionalism of this chamber that such facts, correct or false, do not enter public view," he said.
"This is quite delicate, since a leak of facts like these can sabotage an ongoing investigation. I am strongly of the opinion that this must not be allowed to happen.”
"When legal breaches and leaks take place, we take it very seriously and this will be pursued accordingly.”
Borbely said that nobody would be above investigation, and added that he had wide-ranging powers.
“We can force people to cooperate under Swiss law governing associations, and if they don’t cooperate they are punished. This distinguishes us from a prosecutor, who cannot force people to cooperate.
"In effect, the requirement to cooperate is an attempt to offset the lack of prosecutorial powers.”
The former prosecutor noted that proceedings can be fluid, often turning up new evidence, and the amount of time needed to carry out an investigation depends on each particular case.
“These are all decisive factors which naturally influence the course of an investigation and make it impossible to say how long the process generally lasts.”
Asked how wide his remit was in terms of who could be investigated, he said: "Every football official is subject to the ethics code. Whoever... breaches it will come into our purview, regardless of hierarchy, rank or position."
Borbely added that he would act upon complaints sent to him but was also on the lookout himself for any wrongdoing.
"Cases end up on my desk through notifications and tips that I carefully evaluate. But I also have my eyes and ears open and if I see something that calls for it, of course I open a preliminary investigation," he said.
"Everybody can hand in tips or any kind of information via our whistleblower website. Any information will be transferred directly to us, there is no intermediate in between at all.”
Writing by Brian Homewood in Berne; Editing by Ken Ferris