Blatter becomes new focus of FBI probe

Sepp Blatter leaves after a press conference. (AFP)

Sepp Blatter leaves after a press conference. (AFP)

Sepp Blatter resigned as Fifa president on Tuesday in the face of a US-led corruption investigation that has plunged world soccer’s governing body into the worst crisis in its history. Blatter (79) announced the decision at a news conference in Zurich, six days after the FBI raided a hotel in Zurich and arrested several Fifa officials just four days after he was re-elected to a fifth term as president.

Blatter said an election to choose a new Fifa president would be held as soon as possible.

“Fifa needs profound restructuring,” he said.

Fifa, ruled over by Blatter since 1998, was rocked this week by the announcement of a US investigation into alleged widespread financial wrongdoing stretching back for years. Swiss authorities mounted their own criminal probe into the award of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar, respectively.

The US Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Blatter initially attempted to bat away the furore, relying on his network of friends to hold on to power at Fifa, which he joined in 1975.

While Blatter was not mentioned in either the US or Swiss investigations, there were widespread calls for him to quit, mostly from Western nations.
Some major sponsors also expressed misgivings about the impact of the scandal.

The investigation however closed in on Blatter on Tuesday, when Fifa was forced to deny that his right-hand man, secretary general Jerome Valcke, was implicated in a $10-million payment that lies at the heart of the US case.

But at the same time, a letter addressed to Valcke was published outlining the transaction.

Valcke, who has been secretary general since 2007 and is seen as one of the most powerful men in world sport, had no role in the payments, which were authorised by the chairperson of Fifa’s finance committee, Fifa said in an earlier statement.

The chairperson of the committee at the time of the payments was Argentina’s Julio Grondona, who died last year.

A person familiar with the matter said on Monday that US prosecutors believe Valcke made the $10-million bank transactions which are central to a US bribery investigation against Fifa. 

Blatter focus of FBI probe
Blatter is now the focus of an FBI corruption investigation in the US, it was reported on Tuesday.

Blatter has not yet been identified publicly as a target of the investigation.

The New York Times and ABC News reported the investigation, citing unnamed law enforcement officials and sources familiar with the case, but gave no further details.

ABC News said the FBI and US prosecutors are investigating Blatter as part of the probe that led to last week’s indictments.

“Now that people are going to want to save themselves, there’s probably a race to see who will flip on (Blatter) first,” one source told ABC News.

Another source said: “We may not be able to collapse the whole organisation but maybe you don’t need to,” referring to typical federal law enforcement tactics of getting people to provide information about their superiors.

Critics, sponsors welcome move
Blatter’s decision to step down as Fifa is mired in the worst crisis in its history was welcomed by his critics.

European football federation chief Michel Platini, a French former international player and favourite to succeed Blatter as Fifa president, said: “It was a difficult decision, a brave decision, and the right decision.”

The second favourite on the list, Jordan’s Prince Ali bin Al Hussein, who withdrew from last week’s election after winning 73 votes to Blatter’s 133 in the first round, stopped short of confirming he would run again. Asked if there should be a fresh start at Fifa, he told Britain’s Channel 4 News: “I’m willing to help.”

Greg Dyke, chairperson of the English Football Association and one of Blatter’s most outspoken critics, said it was “good news for world football”, but then questioned Blatter’s motive.

“Who got him? Who shot him?” he asked. “I don’t believe he went for any sort of moral basis so something has happened between then and now which means he has to resign.”

New Zealand Football chief executive Andy Martin told Reuters that Blatter’s resignation would help football rebuild its tattered reputation.

“This has lifted a cloud and taken away a lot of the concerns of stakeholders and their association with the sport,” he said. “We now want a strong collaborative leader who can bring the football world together and can bring out the change that the game has been crying out for.”

The Asian Football Confederation, which has been a staunch ally of Blatter, said on Wednesday it was monitoring the situation and would discuss internally the “best way forward for both Fifa and world football”.

Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko said Blatter’s decision to step down was “courageous” and would help prevent a split in Fifa.

Coca-Cola Co and Adidas welcomed Blatter’s resignation. Another World Cup sponsor, South Korean carmaker Hyundai Motor, said the move was “a positive first step”.  

Fifa’s next chief?
Besides Platini and Prince Ali, several other candidates may emerge in the election for a new president, including Domenico Scala, independent chairperson of the audit and compliance committee of Fifa.

Former Brazil international Zico (62) did not rule out a bid for the presidency and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro suggested Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona could be the next Fifa chief.

European sports officials said Blatter’s resignation was an important move, but that Fifa needed deeper changes. “Beyond the people, structural reforms must be undertaken,” said French sports state secretary Thierry Braillard.

Kalusha Bwalya, Football Association of Zambia president and former African Footballer of the Year, said he was shocked. “The man has done a lot for FIFA,” he said. “For Africa he was always there, he was always caring.”

‘Football should put people together’
Brazilian football legend Pele called for “honest people” to clean up world football on Tuesday after the shock resignation of Fifa supremo Sepp Blatter.

Speaking to the BBC on the sidelines of the New York Cosmos friendly match with Cuba in Havana, the 74-year-old three-time World Cup winner said Fifa must change after the corruption scandal that has rocked football’s governing body.

Pele, who had previously voiced support for Blatter following his re-election, described the football chief’s stunning fall from power as “unfortunate”.

“Everybody asks about Sepp Blatter,” Pele told the BBC. “Of course, everybody was very surprised, not with Sepp Blatter but with Fifa.

“I mentioned before he was the president for 20 years, unfortunately what happened, happened with everyone.

“My position is like a player I want to see football put people together and stop wars. That’s my position. What happened with the corruption, this is not my problem.”

Fifa now faced a critical period as it seeks to clean up its image, Pele said.

“It’s an important time for Fifa. Fifa must change now as it moves forward,” Pele said.

“I think everything in life changes. Football changes, life changes. It’s important to have honest people.

“To organise anything you have to have good people.” - Reuters, AFP

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