SAO PAULO, (Reuters) – FIFA president Sepp Blatter yesterday all but confirmed he would run for re-election despite criticism that the game and organisation have been tarnished by accusations of corruption during his long reign.
World soccer’s governing body is reeling after allegations in Britain’s Sunday Times that a former top FIFA representative made payments to officials as part of a campaign to win support for Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup.
Yet Blatter, who has led FIFA for 16 years, made no direct reference to the scandal throughout yesterday’s annual Congress, and instead pressed his case to extend his tenure.
“My mission is not finished,” he told officials from FIFA’s 209 member associations at the close of Congress, held in Sao Paulo on the eve of the opening game of Brazil’s 2014 World Cup.
“Congress, you will decide who will take this great institution forward, but I can tell you I am ready to accompany you in the future,” he added.
Blatter, who ignored calls made this week by European countries not to run again in next year’s FIFA election, enjoys the support of enough delegates to have his way.
Earlier at the Congress, the lawyer investigating allegations of corruption surrounding FIFA said he would leave no stone unturned in a bid to dispel concerns that the probe would not take into account key evidence that recently came to light.
Michael Garcia handed in a report this week on the findings from nearly two years of work, but told FIFA delegates it did not signal the end of his investigation.
The Sunday Times newspaper reported recently that some of the “millions of documents” it had seen linked payments by former FIFA executive committee member Mohamed Bin Hammam to officials to win backing for Qatar’s World Cup bid.
Bin Hammam has not commented on his involvement since he was banned for life from soccer in 2012, while Qataris working on the project say he was not a part of their official bid.
Garcia said he and his team already had access to the “vast majority” of those documents, and hoped to see the rest soon.
“We have gone to what appears to us to be the original source of that data and we are confident we will have full access to whatever else may be in that data set and we will review that data for anything else relevant prior to issuing any final report,” he told FIFA.
Garcia added that his team would consider any fresh material provided to them, but would not delay the publication of the final report indefinitely.
He is due to submit it to German judge Hans-Joachim Eckert, head of the Ethics Committee’s adjudicatory chamber, in about six weeks and, if he finds corruption, Qatar could be stripped of the Cup, or at least face a challenge to its position as host either through a re-vote or other processes.
Allegations over Qatar’s bid overshadowed the buildup to the World Cup, yet they were barely mentioned at FIFA’s Congress.
Member associations and confederations were promised “extraordinary success premiums” after a profitable financial year, and Blatter even threw in a surprise in the form of a proposal to introduce radical new rules to the game.
While only an informal suggestion at this stage, he proposed allowing managers to appeal against refereeing decisions up to twice each game, using video footage to settle the issue.
The mood at this year’s Congress has been unusually subdued, with statements from regional groupings underlining deep divisions in an organisation that controls the world’s most popular sport and billions of dollars in advertising revenues and television rights.
Senior soccer officials from Europe, concerned that FIFA’s image was being irrevocably damaged by scandals that have dogged it for years, told Blatter bluntly that he should not run again.
“This (election) period has not yet started and I have to accept some number of blows,” Blatter told reporters after the meeting. “This has been the most disrespectful thing I have experienced in my whole life.”
He declined to comment on remarks by David Triesman, former head of English soccer’s governing body, who told the upper house of Britain’s parliament that FIFA was corrupt and any investigations it conducted into itself were cover-ups.
“FIFA, I’m afraid, behaves like a mafia family. It has a decades-long tradition of bribes, bungs and corruption,” said Triesman. A FIFA spokesman declined to comment on the remarks.
The peer was for a while in charge of England’s unsuccessful bid to host the 2018 World Cup.
As European soccer lined up against Blatter, he won overwhelming support during meetings with delegates from Africa, Asia, Oceania and beyond, suggesting that he would comfortably win an election should he decide to take part.
Underlining the anger at this year’s Congress over the Qatar allegations, the head of the Congolese Football Association attacked what he said was “a calumnious campaign against African football”. Omari Selemani also played down the role of African nations in voting to hold the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
The “ignorant” British media has led the attacks on Qatar, he said in a speech days after the Sunday Times published the second in a series of reports putting African soccer bosses at the centre of bribery allegations to secure the 2022 tournament for the tiny Gulf nation.
The rows over Qatar and Blatter’s future have diverted much of FIFA’s attention away from the Brazil World Cup, which opens today with the hosts taking on Croatia.
Nothing but a win will do for a country that many people consider the spiritual home of soccer, and victory on the pitch might generate more excitement off it after a surprisingly subdued buildup to the tournament.
“It’s very hard to find things that are for us, the fans,” said Vedran Lesic, part of a group of Croatian supporters decked out in their national team’s red and white colours as they walked through Sao Paulo yesterday.
“We just want to have some fun and we are trying hard to find it.”
Many Brazilians believe the money spent on building new stadiums in cities that only have small local teams should have gone instead to improving social services.
Support for hosting the World Cup has fallen from nearly 80 percent in 2008 to less than 50 percent this year, according to pollster Datafolha.