Blatter seeking re-election, blames crisis on vote for Russia, Qatar

ZURICH

The worst corruption crisis in soccer history stems from the governing body’s decision to award Russia and Qatar the next two World Cup tournaments, FIFA President Sepp Blatter said Friday, when he will seek to be re-elected despite the scandal.

Blatter spoke at the FIFA congress hours before the presidential election in which he is a seeking a fifth term.

Swiss police reported a bomb threat at the FIFA congress venue ahead of the vote. Reports at the scene said the Hallenstadion’s concert hall auditorium was cleared but the building itself was not evacuated. Zurich city police spokesman Peter Sahli said a police operation is ongoing, but the meeting resumed after lunch.

Blatter has refused calls to resign after FIFA was targeted by U.S. and Swiss authorities in separate corruption investigations.

In 2010, Russia was chosen to host the 2018 World Cup and Qatar was awarded the 2022 tournament amid widespread allegations of wrongdoing.

”If two other countries had emerged from the envelope, I think we would not have these problems today,” Blatter said. ”But we can’t go back in time. We are not prophets. We can’t say what would have happened.”

The United States was one of the losing bidders for the 2022 World Cup. On Wednesday, U.S. authorities indicted 14 people on bribery, racketeering, fraud and money-laundering charges going back to the 1990s.

Seven of the officials, including two serving FIFA vice presidents, were arrested in Zurich on Wednesday ahead of the congress.

The two criminal investigations have cast a new shadow on Blatter’s 17-year reign as president of FIFA. The 209 FIFA member nations will decide later Friday whether to stick with the 79-year-old Blatter or vote for Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan.

Amid the dramatic build-up to the election, UEFA president Michel Platini appealed to Blatter to immediately step down — calls the president has rejected.

”I am willing to accept the president of FIFA is responsible for everything but I would at least like to share that responsibility with everyone,” Blatter said in a presidential address on Friday morning. ”We cannot constantly supervise everyone in football … you cannot ask everyone to behave ethically.”

Blatter also cautioned that ”it will take some time” to rebuild FIFA’s reputation.

”The events of Wednesday have unleashed a storm and there was even questioned whether this congress would be organized or change the agenda,” Blatter said. ”Today I am appealing to unity and team spirit so we can move forward together. That may not always be easy but it is for this reason that we are here together today.”

Blatter’s been here before. "We have been hit and I personally have been slapped," he said at his 2011 re-election, which was overshadowed by a bribery scandal within FIFA. "I don’t want that ever again."

Blatter’s presidency seemed set to end after four years when, in the build-up to the 2002 vote, he was accused of financial mismanagement by members of FIFA’s ruling executive committee and a criminal complaint was filed with Swiss prosecutors. Blatter still beat Issa Hayatou — now a FIFA vice president — to retain the presidency and the criminal complaint came to nothing.

Now, FIFA’s reputation has been bruised by the deepest scandal in its 111-year history, and Blatter’s leadership again is coming under question, although Blatter has not been accused of wrongdoing in the criminal investigations.

A U.S. Justice Department probe accused 14 international soccer officials or sports marketing executives of bribery, racketeering, fraud and money-laundering over two decades in connection with marketing rights worth hundreds of millions of dollars awarded for tournaments in North and South America. Seven officials remained in custody in Zurich on Thursday.

In addition, Swiss officials are investigating the FIFA votes that resulted in the World Cup tournaments being awarded to Russia in 2018 and to Qatar in 2022. Both decisions were overshadowed by allegations of wrongdoing and have cast a constant shadow on Blatter’s fourth term.

"It is necessary to begin to restore trust in our organization," Blatter told the opening session of the FIFA congress Thursday, a day after the police raids in Zurich dominated headlines around the world. "Let this be the turning point. More needs to be done to make sure everyone in football behaves responsibly and ethically."

Platini believes that requires the departure of Blatter, warning that a boycott of the World Cup by European nations could be considered if there wasn’t a change of president.

"I feel pain in my stomach," Platini said. "As someone who has worked with FIFA for many years, I am absolutely sickened."

Having opted against challenging Blatter himself, Platini is among the leading supporters of Prince Ali and believes at least 45 European votes will go to the Jordanian royal.

But a Blatter victory seems more likely, given the broad extent of his power base, barring a fresh development in the twin-pronged investigations by Swiss and American authorities.

A two-thirds majority would be enough for Blatter or Prince Ali to win the secret presidential vote, or a simple majority in a second round of voting. Just forcing the ballot to a second round could represent a victory of sorts for Blatter’s critics, denying the incumbent president an emphatic mandate in his next term.

Blatter’s opening address to the congress was briefly disrupted by a pro-Palestinian activist, who held up a red card and shouted ”Red card to racism.” The protest was to draw attention to a campaign that aims to stop Palestinian players from being detained by Israeli security forces.

After calling for security, Blatter announced: ”I would ask you to please check the access points of this room.”

The head of FIFA’s financial oversight panel has challenged world soccer officials to change the culture of the scandal-hit sport.

Swiss industrialist Domenico Scala told FIFA members Friday at their meeting in Zurich that cleaning up their culture must become "part of a new DNA" for the organization. Scala said delegates should ask themselves if they "would be comfortable if my conduct appeared in the media?"

As chairman of FIFA’s audit and compliance committee since 2012, Scala has monitored all FIFA’s spending and commercial contracts.

A small group of protesters are demonstrating in Zurich outside the FIFA Congress hall, chastising FIFA for not doing more to prevent the abuse of migrant workers as Qatar builds the infrastructure needed to host the 2022 World Cup.

Signs reading "fans against apartheid" were put up by fans of Premier League champion Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham, among others.

Sharan Burrow, the general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, says FIFA President Sepp Blatter should resign amid all the corruption charges and Swiss authorities should place FIFA under judicial supervision.

But she also said in a statement this week that despite the FIFA corruption charges "the world also mustn’t forget that migrant workers in Qatar are still being worked to death … FIFA has failed to make labor rights a condition of Qatar hosting the World Cup and impoverished workers there are paying the price."

Germany’s Justice Minister has been quoted as saying that FIFA’s decision to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups in Russia and Qatar can’t stand if it turns out that votes were bought.

Swiss authorities announced this week that they have opened a criminal probe into alleged wrongdoing by soccer officials during the 2010 vote on who should host those two World Cups.

Justice Minister Heiko Maas told the German daily Bild in an interview Friday that "the awarding of a World Cup shouldn’t depend on who pays the highest bribes."

Maas also said Blatter is the wrong man to investigate alleged graft inside his own organization, one that he has led for 17 years. Maas was quoted as saying that FIFA needs "a fresh start."

Qatar says it will go forward with its plans for the 2022 World Cup despite the Swiss investigation into allegations of wrongdoing during the vote to award the tournament to the Gulf nation.

The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, which is leading Qatar’s development of World Cup venues and other projects, says it has "fully complied with every investigation" and will continue to do so.

It was Qatar’s official comment since Swiss authorities seized documents at FIFA headquarters in Zurich on Wednesday.