With FIFA still reeling from corruption allegations, Sepp Blatter faced a sharp backlash and calls for his resignation Thursday following his comments downplaying the problem of racism in football.
Article continues below ...
The FIFA president provoked outrage by suggesting in television interviews Wednesday that on-field racial abuse could be settled by a handshake and quickly forgotten.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said Thursday that Blatter’s suggestion was ”appalling,” while the country’s sports minister called for Blatter to go ”for the sake of the game.” The European Union described his remedy for racism as ”completely unacceptable.”
Former England and Manchester United striker Andrew Cole wrote in a newspaper column that Blatter was ”clueless” and an ”out-of-touch buffoon.”
Blatter’s latest gaffe follows previous verbal missteps such as suggesting that women players should wear tighter shorts, and gay fans should refrain from having sex at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar where homosexual acts are illegal.
Blatter managed to further discredit FIFA just weeks after he won some praise for promising to confront allegations of financial wrongdoing by senior colleagues as part of wide-ranging reforms following damaging allegations of bribery, vote-rigging and ticket scams.
The latest gaffe by the 75-year-old Swiss official sparked a furor in England, where authorities are investigating two allegations of racial abuse involving Liverpool and Chelsea players in Premier League games.
”This is the latest episode that calls into question whether this man should be the head of world football,” British Sports Minister Hugh Robertson said. ”For the sake of the game, he should go.”
Cameron said ”now is not the time for complacency” in the campaign to stamp out racism.
”It’s appalling to suggest that racism in any way should be accepted as part of the game,” Cameron said in a statement. ”A lot of work has gone into ridding racism from all aspects of our society, including football.”
Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand and Blatter then traded barbs on Twitter in an unusual exchange of views between a professional athlete and an international sports official.
Ferdinand had led a growing chorus of disapproval from black players when he wrote Wednesday that Blatter’s views were ”so condescending its almost laughable.”
The England player also posted a sarcastic message after FIFA’s website published a statement from Blatter accompanied by a photograph of him hugging Tokyo Sexwale, a black official from South Africa.
Blatter used Twitter, which he joined ahead of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, to direct a tweet at an individual user for the first time.
”(at)rioferdy5 The ‘black man’ as you call him has a name: Tokyo Sexwale,” Blatter wrote early Thursday.
Blatter said Sexwale, a South African government minister and former Robben Island prisoner, ”had done tremendous work against racism and apartheid in Africa.”
”We have done several joint activities to raise awareness on the struggle against racism in South Africa,” Blatter wrote. ”FIFA has a long standing and proud record in the area of anti-discrimination which will continue.”
Ferdinand hit back with another tweet: ”to say what you said about racism in football spoke volumes of your ignorance to the subject.”
Ferdinand has been personally involved in the recent racism debate in England, with his brother Anton the target of an alleged slur by Chelsea’s John Terry. Police and The Football Association are investigating.
Blatter stood by his remark in an interview Thursday with the Fox Soccer channel, describing incidents between players as ”foul language.”
”I’m not saying about discrimination, but it’s foul language, it’s a foul play,” he said. ”At the end of the match, if you have foul play, (when) the match is over you shake hands now because it’s what we want to do.”
In Brussels, EU spokesman Dennis Abbott denounced Blatter’s view as ”completely unacceptable.”
”It is not OK to racially abuse someone on the sports field, shake hands at the end and say ‘That’s OK.’ It is not,” Abbott told The Associated Press.
However, that view appeared in a minority as reaction outside England was more restrained.
The respected daily Neue Zuercher Zeitung in FIFA’s home city of Zurich reported on its website that Blatter was involved in a racism debate, and reprinted some of his Twitter exchanges with Ferdinand.
Former international players Shaka Hislop of Trinidad and Tobago and Andrew Cole of England supported Ferdinand.
Hislop questioned in a Twitter message whether FIFA was responsible for promoting racial harmony and equality – a claim of football’s potential to improve society which Blatter often makes.
”If the answer is ‘Yes,’ then Blatter has to go, and go now. HAS TO,” wrote Hislop, who is now an analyst for broadcaster ESPN.
Cole, a former Man United forward, wrote in his newspaper column: ”I don’t know one black player who could comprehend what Blatter is trying to say. I personally find it very offensive.”
Opposition to Blatter spread to France, where former international Sidney Govou said the FIFA leader had made ”a big error.”
”You must not trivialize racism, it’s serious,” Govou told French radio station RMC.
Blatter’s remark seemed at odds with his pledge after his June re-election that FIFA would not tolerate a lack of respect on and off the field.
”What he said was a remarkable mistake but I can’t imagine (he should resign),” said Theo van Seggelen, general secretary of the FIFPro group of players’ unions. ”He admits it was a mistake, let it be a good lesson.”
Van Seggelen is a member of FIFA’s ”Task Force Football 2014,” which Blatter created to suggest ways of improving the sport before the next World Cup in Brazil. One of its tasks is encouraging players, officials and fans to show more respect inside stadiums.
”We still have a lot of problems with racism in the stadiums,” the Dutch official told the AP, highlighting eastern Europe as a problem area. He said the current outcry ”could be a reason for Blatter to take it more seriously than up to now. FIFA has to do more against racism.”
Within hours of Blatter’s remarks, the English Football Association charged Liverpool forward Luis Suarez with racially abusing Manchester United defender Patrice Evra, who is black.
Liverpool said Suarez will plead not guilty and insisted that the club is ”fully supportive of Luis in this matter.”
Terry, the England captain, has said his comments were taken out of context.
Also Thursday, European body UEFA was hearing a case in which England was the victim of alleged discrimination.
The Bulgarian football federation has been charged after its fans allegedly directed verbal abuse at England players during a European Championship qualifier in Sofia in September.
If Blatter did resign, FIFA rules require that his senior vice president, Julio Grondona of Argentina, take over until a likely election at the next congress, scheduled for next May in Budapest, Hungary.
Grondona, who is 80 and has led Argentina’s football federation since 1979, has also sparked controversy with his remarks. In 2003, he said that Jewish men could not be top-level referees because they ”don’t like hard work.”