ZURICH: Fifa’s veteran president Sepp Blatter faced angry demands to resign after US indictments and arrests of top lieutenants engulfed the football supremo in crisis heading into an annual congress Thursday.
As Blatter prepared to open the congress in Switzerland, top sponsors who pour millions into world football including Coca-Cola, Adidas, McDonald’s and Visa pressed the global body to clean itself up.
Visa said that unless Fifa rebuilds a corporate culture with “strong ethical practices” at its heart, “we have informed them that we will reassess our sponsorship”.
Fifa was adamant that despite the arrests early Wednesday of the seven officials in a luxury Zurich hotel, its congress and leadership vote would go ahead as planned this week.
But leading figures in the global game, as well as newspapers around the world, said such a stand was untenable after US prosecutors said their investigation had unearthed the “World Cup of fraud”.
US authorities said nine football officials were among 14 people facing up to 20 years in jail if found guilty in the long-running corruption case involving more than US$150 million (RM547.25 million) in bribes.
The US investigation said South African officials paid US$10 million in bribes to host the 2010 tournament, while Swiss investigators raided Fifa’s Zurich headquarters as part of an investigation into the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar.
“Sepp Blatter has to go as Fifa president,” said Greg Dyke, chairman of the English Football Association, which lost out to Russia for the 2018 tournament amid allegations of bribery in the bidding process.
“There is no way of rebuilding trust in Fifa while Sepp Blatter is still there. He either has to go through a resignation, or he has to be out-voted or we have to find a third way,” Dyke said.
European federations demanded the suspension of the Fifa congress starting Thursday and for Friday’s presidential vote, in which Blatter was expected to ease to a fifth term, to be put back by six months.
“These events show, once again, that corruption is deeply rooted in Fifa’s culture,” the European governing body UEFA said, warning its members might boycott a congress that risks becoming a “farce”.
Former Brazil star turned senator Romario, a vociferous critic of corruption in the game, said he hoped the investigations would stymie Blatter’s hopes of re-election, and called for a “worthy” leader.
“I hope this will change something as there is the hope, at least for me, that Blatter may also be detained,” he said.
The Fifa president was not among those named in the US indictment.
US officials would not be drawn on the possibility of future charges against other senior Fifa figures, and pointedly refused to answer questions about Blatter himself.
“It’s a significant step but I want to be very clear, this is the beginning of our effort not the end,” said Kelly Currie, acting US attorney for the eastern district of New York.
Blatter, 79, said it was a “difficult time” for the world body, and said he would not tolerate misconduct after the investigation named top officials including former Fifa vice-president Jack Warner.
“Let me be clear: such misconduct has no place in football and we will ensure that those who engage in it are put out of the game,” Blatter said in a statement.
The veteran Fifa boss did win support from the Asian Football Confederation, which has its own recent history of corruption allegations.
AFC members hold 47 of the 209 votes in the Fifa election, third only behind Africa’s CAF (56 votes) and UEFA (54).
The AFC “expresses its disappointment and sadness at Wednesday’s events in Zurich whilst opposing any delay in the Fifa presidential elections”, a statement said.
Warner, from Trinidad and Tobago, reportedly appeared in a Port of Spain court Wednesday before a judge who set his bail at $394,000, according to local media.
Warner was ordered to hand over his passport and check in with police twice a week before a hearing over whether to extradite him to the United States in July, according to the reports.
Warner has denied any wrongdoing. But two of his sons have pleaded guilty to charges related to the US investigation into bribery and kickbacks involving Fifa officials and sports marketing firms.
US agents also raided the Miami headquarters of CONCACAF, the continental confederation under Fifa in the United States. Warner used to be its president.
The Swiss justice ministry said that six of the seven officials arrested in Zurich were opposing their extradition to the United States.
Fifa vice presidents Jeffrey Webb the current CONCACAF chief and Eugenio Figueredo were among the seven arrested by Zurich police at 6am on Wednesday at the elegant Baur au Lac hotel.
“The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States,” US attorney general Loretta Lynch said.
The court indictment said that in the bidding for the 2010 tournament, which went to South Africa, some bribes were handed over in a briefcase stuffed with US$10,000 bundles of cash.
South Africa dismissed the claims as “baseless” and demanded proof of the allegations.
Russia’s foreign ministry accused the United States of illegally applying its judicial force “far beyond its borders”.
But Lynch insisted that those accused had systematically abused the US financial system and US law, through racketeering, wire fraud and money-laundering, “and we intend to hold them accountable”.
In the US investigation, former Fifa executive committee member Chuck Blazer was reportedly equipped with a tiny recording device hidden inside a keyring as FBI agents sought to gather evidence of fraud during meetings of football bosses at the London 2012 Olympics.