ZURICH: Sepp Blatter defied calls from FIFA sponsors Budweiser, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Visa to quit immediately as president of world soccer’s governing body on Friday rather than cling on until the emergency election in February.
The seemingly-coordinated interventions from the long-standing corporate backers came a week after the Blatter was interrogated by Swiss investigators and placed under criminal investigation for alleged financial wrongdoing at FIFA, which he has led since 1998.
It marked an escalation in the dual American and Swiss soccer corruption investigations, which burst into public view with the arrest of seven FIFA officials at a Zurich hotel two days before the presidential election in May. They are among 14 officials indicted in the U.S. on bribery and racketeering charges.
The 79-year-old Blatter gained a fifth term only to announce resignation plans four days later in the face of private pressure from sponsors and the fear of a criminal investigation.
But Blatter is determined to remain in power until his successor is elected on Feb. 26 and “respectfully disagrees” with the sponsors who demand his immediate departure, the president’s lawyer, Richard Cullen, said.
“(He) believes firmly that his leaving office now would not be in the best interest of FIFA nor would it advance the process of reform and therefore, he will not resign,” Cullen said in a statement.
Coca-Cola, which has advertised in stadiums at every World Cup since 1950, was the first of the sponsors to demand Blatter’s resignation, having previously just called for reforms at the scandal-battered governing body.
“For the benefit of the game, The Coca-Cola Company is calling for FIFA President Joseph Blatter to step down immediately so that a credible and sustainable reform process can begin in earnest,” Coca-Cola said in a statement.
“Every day that passes, the image and reputation of FIFA continues to tarnish. FIFA needs comprehensive and urgent reform, and that can only be accomplished through a truly independent approach.”
That call was echoed by fast food giant McDonald’s, which has been a World Cup sponsor since 1994.
“The events of recent weeks have continued to diminish the reputation of FIFA and public confidence in its leadership,” McDonald’s said in a statement. “We believe it would be in the best interest of the game for FIFA President Sepp Blatter to step down immediately so that the reform process can proceed with the credibility that is needed.”
A further blow came from Visa, which has a FIFA deal through the 2022 World Cup.
“We believe no meaningful reform can be made under FIFA’s existing leadership,” Visa said. “And given the events of last week, it’s clear it would be in the best interest of FIFA and the sport for Sepp Blatter to step down immediately.”
The fourth statement was delivered by brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev, whose Budweiser branding has appeared on advertising signage in World Cup stadiums since 1986 and its current deal runs until 2022.
“It would be appropriate for Mr. Blatter to step down as we believe his continued presence to be an obstacle in the reform process,” the beer maker said in a statement.
Blatter’s own position has been weakened as lawyers oversee key decisions at FIFA and he waits to hear whether he will be suspended by the ethics committee.
Swiss prosecutors allege that Blatter undervalued World Cup broadcasting contracts for the Caribbean sold to disgraced former FIFA vice president Jack Warner in 2005.
Blatter was also questioned over an allegedly “disloyal payment” of 2 million Swiss francs (now $2.04 million) in 2011 from FIFA to UEFA President Michel Platini for work carried out at least nine years earlier.
Blatter has denied being corrupt but he is a target of U.S. investigators.
Although the sponsors did not respond to Blatter rejecting their demands to resign with a threat to withdraw cash from FIFA, English Football Association chairman Greg Dyke praised their intervention as “a game changer.”
“It doesn’t matter what Mr. Blatter says now, if the people who pay for FIFA want a change they will get a change,” Dyke said. “What is important is that it isn’t just about Mr. Blatter standing down, it’s about making sure there is a comprehensive and effective reform program.
“So for those of us who want fundamental change this is good news.”
FIFA generated $5.7 billion in 2011-2014, which encompassed the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, with sponsors and commercial partners contributing $1.6 billion.
The crisis is damaging FIFA’s attempts to attract new sponsors ahead of the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2022 tournament in Qatar.
Only seven of 14 available positions in FIFA’s top two commercial categories have been filled. Two top-tier sponsors, Dubai-based airline Emirates and Sony, were among several commercial partners who did not renew last year.