Pressure mounted on FIFA’s embattled leader to step down Thursday, as several leading corporate sponsors expressed growing displeasure with the corruption scandal rocking the organization and some leading member countries, including the United States, said they would vote for a new president of the world soccer organization.
FIFA’s leader, Joseph “Sepp” Blatter made his first public comments since Wednesday’s arrest of several leading soccer officials, distancing himself from devastating charges that the sport’s leadership is riddled with corruption. He remained defiant in advance of voting planned for Friday in Zurich by FIFA’s 209 member countries on whether to keep him as president.
Blatter, 79, looked ahead to a fifth term as president of FIFA, which he was expected to win entering the week. “I will not allow the actions of a few to destroy the hard work and integrity of the vast majority who work so hard,” he said.
And he remained defiant in the face of far-reaching corruption allegations from U.S. and Swiss prosecutors — as well as suggestions that the probes may not be over.
“I know many people hold me ultimately responsible for the actions and reputation of the global football community, whether it's a decision for the hosting of a World Cup or a corruption scandal,” Blatter said in the speech, which opened two days of meetings in the Swiss city.
“We, or I, cannot monitor everyone all of the time. If people want to do wrong, they will also try to hide it.”
But there was both discord within FIFA’s member organizations and wider unease among companies that sponsor the sport Thursday, a day after the U.S. Justice Department indicted 14 individuals with direct or close ties to the Zurich-based organization on charges of, among other offenses, racketeering and money laundering conspiracies. In a separate investigation, Swiss authorities are looking into improprieties in FIFA’s awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 tournament to Qatar.
Blatter has run the international governing body since 1998 and, until Wednesday, seemed almost certain to win a fifth term as FIFA’s president. However, Blatter’s opponent Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, a FIFA vice president from Jordan who has pledged to reform the scandal-ridden organization, appears to have gained support in recent days.
The U.S. Soccer Federation will vote for al-Hussein in his race against Blatter for the FIFA presidency, USSF President Sunil Gulati said Thursday night.
“It really starts with his views on governance and reform,” said Gulati, who is also a member of FIFA’s 24-member executive committee. “This is a vote for good governance.”
Earlier Thursday, Michel Platini, head of the powerful European soccer organization known as UEFA, called for Blatter to step down.
FIFA sponsors, including Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch and Adidas, issued statements pressuring the organization to maintain strong ethical standards. Such companies pay an estimated $30 million annually for official sponsorship tied to major soccer events, such as the quadrennial World Cup.
“Should FIFA fail to do so, we have informed them that we will reassess our sponsorship,” Visa said in a statement.
Hyundai, the South Korean automaker, said it was “extremely concerned about the legal proceedings being taken against certain FIFA executives and will continue to monitor the situation closely.”
Blatter, who was not among those charged in the case, had kept a low profile before his speech, holding emergency talks with the sport’s high-ranking executives and canceling public appearances.
He said he and FIFA will cooperate with investigators but warned “more bad news” was likely in a “difficult few months” ahead.
Justice Department officials said Wednesday that scrutiny of FIFA has just begun.
FIFA rejected calls from UEFA to postpone Friday’s election. Blatter’s backers, most notably the Asian Football Confederation, said the vote should be conducted as scheduled. While expressing “disappointment and sadness” about the scandal, the AFC reiterated its support for the incumbent.
CONCACAF, which governs North and Central America and the Caribbean, is also in favor of the election proceeding. While many small CONCACAF nations are among Blatter’s strongest supporters, the United States was among six countries that nominated al-Hussein in the winter.
Platini, the European federation leader and a former star player on the French national team, said most of the 54 European countries will vote for al-Hussein.
“So many scandals have shaken FIFA,” Platini said. “FIFA does not deserve to be treated like this. I have had enough — enough is enough, too much is too much. I am the first to be disgusted.
“I told Mr. Blatter, ‘We started together and now I am asking you to step down as we cannot continue this way.’ He told me, ‘It's too late, I can't all of a sudden leave.’ ”
Platini suggested that UEFA would consider withdrawing from FIFA if Blatter retains the presidency, a move that could jeopardize European participation in the 2018 World Cup.
British Prime Minister David Cameron weighed in on behalf of the prince’s candidacy and called for a change in FIFA’s leadership. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius suggested delaying the vote in view of the corruption probe.
Meantime, CONCACAF, which was at the center of the corruption storm, began reorganizing its leadership by provisionally banning executives Jeffrey Webb and Eduardo Li, who were among the nine FIFA officials charged in Wednesday’s indictment. Webb was among 11 individuals suspended by FIFA on Wednesday.
“CONCACAF has been the victim of fraud,” said Honduras’s Alfredo Hawit, who was appointed the new president.
The confederation also placed General Secretary Enrique Sanz on a leave of absence to begin immediately. Sanz formerly worked for Traffic Sports USA, a Miami-based marketing firm implicated in Wednesday’s corruption charges.
Brian Murphy and William Branigin contributed to this report.