By Mike Collett and Brian Homewood
The corruption charges engulfing soccer’s governing body has heaped shame and humiliation on the game, FIFA President Sepp Blatter said on Thursday, although he flatly rejected calls to resign over the scandal.
With FIFA facing the worst crisis in its 111-year history, Michel Platini, who heads Europe’s soccer confederation UEFA, said he had told Blatter to go “with tears in my eyes”, but the 79-year-old had refused.
“I said, ‘I’m asking you to leave, FIFA’s image is terrible.’ He said that he couldn’t leave all of a sudden,” Platini, a former French international, told reporters.
In a bullish speech opening a FIFA Congress in Zurich, Blatter said the turbulence of the last two days, which included the arrest of leading soccer officials at their luxury Swiss hotel, had heaped “shame and humiliation” on world soccer.
Making his first public appearance since Wednesday’s dramatic events, which were triggered by a U.S.-led investigation into allegations of rampant bribe-taking, Blatter said there was no room “for corruption of any kind”.
“The events of yesterday have cast a long shadow over football and this Congress,” said Blatter, who is standing for a fifth mandate as FIFA president in Friday’s election, where Prince Ali bin Al Hussein of Jordan is his only challenger.
Ignoring calls to step down, Blatter said: “I know many people hold me ultimately responsible … (but) I cannot monitor everyone all the time. If people want to do wrong, they will also try to hide it.”
Platini said 45 or 46 of UEFA’s 53 member associations would vote for Prince Ali.
But it appeared that Blatter still commanded enough of FIFA’s 209 national associations to secure victory.
Blatter appeared confident despite the dawn raid by plainclothes police on Wednesday that left seven of the most powerful figures in football in Swiss custody and facing extradition to the United States on corruption charges.
They are all contesting extradition, but lawyers said the process could be completed within months.
Swiss authorities have also announced a criminal investigation into the awarding of the next two World Cups, which are being hosted in Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022.
U.S. authorities said nine football officials and five sports media and promotions executives faced corruption charges involving more than $150 million in bribes.
Both Qatar and Moscow have denied any suggestion of wrongdoing over their bids to host one of the world’s top sporting events, and Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the United States on Thursday of meddling in an effort to prevent the re-election of Blatter.
“This is yet another blatant attempt to extend its jurisdiction to other states,” Putin said, adding that Russia would continue to support Blatter.
The FIFA Congress formally got under way on Thursday evening. In the past the likes of Grace Jones have set the hearts racing of the older men in suits who comprise most of the Congress’s constituency. But times have changed.
The evening was billed as a rather more subdued affair than normal under the banner “Game of Joy, Game of Hope” with dancers and musicians on stage followed by a grand buffet afterwards.
The serious business starts on Friday morning in Zurich’s Hallenstadion, which is where the announcement of the 2018 and 2022 World Cup venues was made in 2010 — decisions which lie at the heart of much of FIFA’s current malaise.
With splits opening in the world game, the Asian and African confederations backed Blatter for president, while Western nations said he must go.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the vote should be delayed in light of the corruption investigation.
British Prime Minister David Cameron backed Prince Ali’s candidacy and said there was a strong case for a change of leadership at FIFA. Britain has long been a critic of FIFA and bid for the 2018 World Cup which was awarded toRussia.
Les Murray of Australia, a former FIFA ethics committee member, also called for Blatter to resign.
Meanwhile blue-chip sponsors, many of whom have solidly backed FIFA despite nearly 20 years of bribery and corruption allegations, appeared to be growing concerned at events unfolding in Zurich.
In a strongly worded statement, credit card giant Visa said: “It is important that FIFA makes changes now, so that the focus remain on these going forward. Should FIFA fail to do so, we have informed them that we will reassess our sponsorship.”
German sportswear company Adidas said FIFA should do more to establish transparent compliance standards. Anheuser-Busch InBev, whose Budweiser brand is a sponsor of the 2018 World Cup, said it was closely monitoring developments.
Coca-Cola Co, another sponsor, said the charges had “tarnished the mission and ideals of the FIFA World Cup and we have repeatedly expressed our concerns about these serious allegations”.