ZURICH FIFA President Sepp Blatter came out fighting on Saturday as he began his fifth term in charge of soccer’s governing body, implying that the United States timed the announcement of a major corruption probe to try to scupper his re-election bid.
The 79-year-old Swiss comfortably won Friday’s vote at a FIFA congress in Zurich, having secured the support of blocks of votes from Asia and Africa, which outweighed dissenters including Europe’s powerful soccer body UEFA.
He now faces the daunting task of restoring public faith in an organisation tainted by allegations of graft and deeply divided over his leadership.
In an interview with Swiss television late on Friday, he criticised U.S. authorities for how they had handled their investigation.
“No one is going to take it off me that it was a simple coincidence (that) this American attack (happened) two days before the elections of FIFA,” Blatter told the RTS channel.
“Why didn’t they (the police) do this in March when we had the same meeting? At that time, we had less journalists.”
In a dawn swoop on a Zurich hotel on Wednesday, Swiss police arrested seven leading soccer officials, including FIFA vice-president Jeffrey Webb.
The arrests were connected to a bribery scandal being investigated by U.S., Swiss and other law enforcement agencies that plunged FIFA into the worst crisis in its 111-year history.
Blatter also criticised UEFA, whose president Michel Platini had called for his resignation, saying it was not setting a good example to other soccer federations.
He told reporters on Saturday that UEFA had opposed a proposal to set up an independent committee to carry out integrity checks on executive committee members before they could take office.
“This was rejected by UEFA so it couldn’t go through,” he said. “Even now, the big UEFA doesn’t have an independent ethics committee, (but) they should be an example for the other confederations… It’s not acceptable.”
He did, however, call for the two groups to work together, particularly to protect the World Cup.
“They need FIFA and FIFA needs UEFA,” Blatter said.
EXPANDING POWER BASE
Blatter played down the impact of the scandal on one of the world’s most powerful sports bodies, which takes in billions of dollars in revenue from TV marketing rights and sponsorships.
“These crimes which have been committed are related to North and South America and a marketing company has been mentioned, so I do not see how (FIFA) could be directly affected by this.”
“We have always tried, in my tenure of office, to eliminate all these elements or individuals.”
Blatter has not been implicated in any wrongdoing, but having ruled FIFA for nearly 20 years during which it has regularly been subject to suspicions of graft, his critics have argued it was time for him to step down.
His supporters welcomed the outcome of a vote that pitted the veteran incumbent against a sole challenger, 39-year-old Prince Ali bin Al Hussein of Jordan.
That support reflects Blatter’s success in expanding FIFA’s membership away from soccer’s heartlands and in exploiting resentment in Africa and Asia over the perceived arrogance of the game’s powerhouse nations in Europe and South America.
Despite Blatter’s re-election, the scandal surrounding the investigations into corruption looks set to rumble on.
Platini has raised the possibility, albeit slim, of Europe boycotting the World Cup tournament, soccer’s showcase played every four years.
There has also been talk of UEFA breaking away from FIFA, although that is also seen as unlikely.
David Gill, vice chairman of England’s Football Association, confirmed on Saturday he would not take up his post on FIFA’s executive committee.
“The terribly damaging events of the last three days have convinced me it is not appropriate to be a member of the FIFA executive committee under the current leadership,” he said.
MORE INDICTMENTS TO COME?
Blatter’s future could yet depend on the reaction of FIFA’s major sponsors and stakeholders such as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, who have been dismayed by the arrests and U.S. prosecutors announcing indictments of officials and companies.
A senior U.S. Internal Revenue Service official said on Friday he thought there would be further indictments, the New York Times reported, although he declined to identify the remaining targets of the investigation.
Swiss prosecutors are investigating the award of the World Cup finals to Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022, decisions that have deepened rifts within FIFA.
The choice of Qatar, a small desert state where summer daytime temperatures rarely fall below 40 degrees Celsius, was especially contentious and went against the advice of FIFA’s own technical committee.
Russia and Qatar deny wrongdoing in their bids to host the prestigious tournament, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused the United States of meddling in an effort to force Blatter out.
When asked after the vote if he could guarantee the next World Cup would still be staged in Russia, FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke told reporters: “Yes, yes. I mean now, today … yes the World Cup will be played in Russia and Qatar.”
Away from the crisis engulfing soccer’s administration, the under-20 World Cup got underway in New Zealand, and more than 25,000 people turned up in Auckland for the opening game.
Preparations for the Women’s World Cup, which opens in Canada on June 6, continued with a friendly between the hosts and England before a sellout crowd in Hamilton, Ontario.
“For these women, it is not about the money, it’s about the game, it renews your faith,” said England supporter Kevin Mackowski. “And it’s good soccer, it’s a truly beautiful game.”
(Writing by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Crispian Balmer)
This story has not been edited by Firstpost staff and is generated by auto-feed.
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