FIFA President Sepp Blatter defends his reputation, downplays corruption probe

A defiant Sepp Blatter defends FIFA in wake of U.S. and Swiss corruption investigations

In a testy session, FIFA President Sepp Blatter on Saturday faced the media for the first time since his organization was engulfed by a corruption scandal and fiercely defended his reputation.

"This is your stand, that we are not changing," he said to a reporter who questioned whether culture of the world soccer organization was corrupt. "You will see what happens.‎"

The three days since the FBI arrested a number of FIFA executives here have been a political roller coaster for Blatter. There has been intense public criticism of his leadership, largely from European quarters, along with a steady expression of support from Asian and African sectors of the organization, which on Friday helped win a fifth term as president.

Blatter said Saturday that he thought the inquiry would have little effect on his ability to run  the organization.‎

"Listen, if someone is making investigations, they have all the right to do it if they do it in a correct manner," ‎he told a room  of reporters at FIFA's bucolic headquarters east of central Zurich. "‎I have no concerns about that and I have no concerns about my person."

The investigations are ongoing, and it remains to be seen if Blatter -- who said he has not spoken with U.S. authorities -- will be touched by a probe that thus far has resulted in the indictment of 14 people and outlined alleged bribes exceeding $150 million.

Blatter sought to minimize the extent of the charges while questioning the motives of those who brought them.

"These crimes that have been committed, we need to establish if they're more administrative or criminal in nature. They're related to the Americas. A marketing committee is mentioned," he said. "So I don't see how FIFA could be affected directly by this."

He continued a theme that he has been hitting with increasing force since his first post-raid public appearance Thursday -- that the investigation is aimed at him personally.

"They could have been indicted at any time besides two days before an electoral congress‎," he said. Then, in an apparent reference to on-scene reporting by the New York Times on Wednesday, he added: "All these events that have taken place culminating in police storming a big Zurich hotel -- and curiously enough there are already three American journalists on location."

U.S. authorities have maintained there is no vendetta against Blatter in the probe, and that even the soccer context is incidental to a conventional racketeering investigation. (Blatter did note that his feelings about the U.S.-led investigation would have "no impact" on the country's potential bid for the 2026 World Cup.)

Blatter's fate has become a subject of deep fascination, due both to his polarizing personal style and FIFA's position at the nexus of a popular pastime and a billion-dollar industry.

Throughout the news conference, which lasted about half an hour,‎ journalists hammered the executive with questions about his competence and culpability. There was little of the beaming executive who, post-election, had been thanking various gods, going on riffs about beach soccer and chanting "Me-hico, Me-hico."‎ 

Was he the unnamed FIFA figure cited in the indictments as approving‎ an alleged $10-million bribe?

‎"Definitely that wasn't me."

Was he worried, with so many former colleagues under indictment, that he could soon be arrested too?

"Arrested for what?"

To one of the most direct questions -- "was it incompetence or intentional negligence" that these alleged misdeeds happened on his watch -- he said he did accept some responsibility but that‎ "everyone is responsible for their own ethical behavior.‎"

The news conference was a chance for reporters to ask Blatter questions that had built up before and during FIFA's annual congress Friday.

It also followed a meeting of the organization's executive committee, at which the Blatter-led panel decided not to reduce the 13 slots allocated to European nations for the 2022 World Cup, as some speculated the panel might do.

The decision is an olive branch of sorts to UEFA, the European federation of soccer nations whose leadership has been highly critical of Blatter. "They need FIFA and FIFA needs UEFA," he said at the news conference.

But any trace of conciliation evaporated later in the session. Speaking of David Gill -- the Britain-based UEFA executive who was newly elected to the role of FIFA vice president but boycotted Saturday's meeting -- Blatter said,‎ "When you're elected and you don't even come to the first meeting? This is not responsibility."

Blatter also waved aside concerns that FIFA sponsors -- Visa and Coca-Cola have been among those critical -- might pull out.

"These are partners," he said. "I'm sure I'll bring them back." He has said he has spoken to officials of many of the sponsors since they released their statements and was convinced they wouldn't drop their deals.

Blatter ‎sought to portray himself as a leader whose foremost charge was to serve the FIFA membership. "Despite all the troubles, still 133 national associations have given their trust in me," he said, referring to Friday's election results. Blatter won the approval of those members but failed to secure the vote of 73 other associations, triggering a second ballot.

When a reporter asked, given all the alleged misdeeds, why Blatter hadn't chosen to step down, he went back to the organizational mandate.

"It's very easy," he said. "You have seen the results of the election."

The news conference and the executive committee meeting that preceded it wound down some of the most eventful days in recent FIFA memory.

But as heads of the sport's various associations began leaving Saturday, the top ranks of the world soccer organization looked surprisingly similar to how they did before the drama.‎ The changes will be felt most with those executives arrested Wednesday in Switzerland, all of whom are currently being detained in‎ the country.

They include FIFA vice president and executive committee member Jeffrey Webb, the American head of CONCACAF who was once a rising star in the organization; Jose Maria Marin, the former head of the Brazilian federation and chief of the 2014 World Cup organizing committee; and Eduardo Li, the head of the Costa Rican association who was set to join the FIFA executive committee Friday.

The focus will now shift to the legal side. A battle is expected over extradition, with all seven of those arrested in Switzerland fighting the proceedings. But experts said that because the alleged crimes are also illegal under Swiss law, it was likely the country's authorities would cooperate with American officials and that the defendants could be in the U.S. within the next few months, pending appeals.

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

12:35 p.m.: This article has been updated with new information on the conclusion of the FIFA meetings in Zurich.

This article was originally published at 7:23 a.m.

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