FIFA President Sepp Blatter's resignation stuns soccer world

FIFA's embattled President Sepp Blatter announces he will step down

FIFA President Sepp Blatter's announcement that he would step down from his role as the most powerful man in soccer, reignited worldwide calls for reform from inside and outside of the organization which had become engulfed in scandal and a growing investigation.

Federal law enforcement officials revealed Tuesday that Blatter had emerged as the leading "target" in a widening criminal scandal investigation underway by FBI agents and federal prosecutors in New York.

The two sources, speaking anonymously because the case is continuing, said that Blatter has become the latest top subject of this country's criminal probe into allegations that leaders of soccer's world governing body accepted bribes in return for supporting specific countries seeking to play host to the highly lucrative World Cup.

"He's a target," said one of the sources. "He has been for awhile."

At a news conference at FIFA headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland, earlier in the day, Blatter said he would be in a better position to institute reform throughout the organization if he was not constrained by the need to run for reelection.

"While I have a mandate from the membership of FIFA, I do not feel that I have a mandate from the entire world of football -- the fans, the players, the clubs, the people who live, breathe and love football as much as we all do at FIFA," Blatter said, according to a translated copy of his prepared remarks. 

Blatter, 79, was reelected Friday to a fifth term, defeating Jordanian Prince Ali bin al-Hussein in a contest that came only two days after the  indictments by the U.S. Department of Justice of 14 people connected with FIFA on bribery-related charges. Blatter said Tuesday that the scandal overrode the vote.

"I have thoroughly considered my presidency, thought about my presidency and about the last 40 years in my life," he told reporters. "I am now free from the constraints of an election. I will be in apposition to focus on implementing ambitious and profound reforms to follow on our initial efforts."

His announcement came one day after it was reported that federal authorities believe that Jerome Valcke, FIFA's secretary general, was behind $10 million in bank transactions that are one focus of the scandal.

Domenico Scala, FIFA's chairman of audit and compliance, who also oversaw last week's presidential election, said the group's bylaws require four months' notice before a new election is held. He said FIFA would attempt to hold the new election sometime between December and March.

"Nothing will be off the table, including the structure and composition of the executive committee and the way in which the executive committee [is] elected," Scala said.

Among the reforms Scala said FIFA would seek were FIFA-driven "integrity checks" for all executive committee members, term limits for the president and executive committee members, and public disclosure of their compensation.

"These steps will ensure that the organization cannot be used by those seeking to enrich themselves at the expense of the game."

Blatter faced widespread criticism when he opted to pursue reelection last week. His decision to resign was generally seen as a step toward change within FIFA.

Sunil Gulati, head of the U.S. Soccer Federation, commended Blatter on his decision, saying in a statement that he hoped it was the "first of many steps towards real and meaningful reform within FIFA."

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach also welcomed the development, saying the IOC hoped it would initiate "the necessary reforms and to make way for a new leadership of FIFA to drive these changes."

Alexandra Wrage, an International anti-corruption expert who resigned as a member of FIFA's Independent Governance Committee in 2013 in protest of watered-down efforts to reform the organization, said at first she didn't really believe Blatter was stepping down.

"It's such a statement about the man and how wiley he's been. I thought there's the possibility he'll end this with saying, 'I'm staying for another four years.' We didn't quite believe it until the end," Wrage said.

Wrage said the end of Blatter's reign woudn't necessarily move FIFA past the scandal.

"I don't think we're anything like out of the woods," Wrage said. "I think there's the possibility that somebody very much like Blatter, very much like his leadership style could win at the next election."

World Cup sponsor Coca-Cola described the resignation as a "positive step." FIFA partner Adidas and World Cup sponsor McDonald's also welcomed the change.

"Our expectation remains that FIFA will continue to act with urgency to take concrete actions to fully address all of the issues that have been raised and win back the trust of all who love the sport of football," Coca-Cola said in a statement.

The scandal that sparked Blatter's resignation unfolded when federal prosecutors in New York charged 14 people, nine of them current or past high-ranking members of FIFA, in an indictment that alleged systemic and deep-rooted corruption within soccer’s governing body.

Subsequent raids were carried out in Zurich and Miami, part of a years-long FBI probe into crimes that authorities said dated back two decades.

A federal law enforcement source, speaking anonymously because the FIFA case is continuing, said Tuesday that investigators have hoped that interrogations with those already charged in the scandal might lead to additional indictments against other higher officials in the world-wide soccer organization.

But the source could not say whether the Blatter resignation announcement was an attempt by the FIFA leader to dodge a pending indictment or to allow him room to work with investigators on the case, "or whether it was related at all" to the criminal investigation in this country.

In response to Blatter's resignation, the Swiss attorney general’s office (OAG) released a statement confirming FIFA’s ex-president was not facing a criminal probe.

"The OAG has opened criminal proceedings against persons unknown on suspicion of criminal mismanagement and of money laundering. Therefore, Joseph S. Blatter is not under investigation by the OAG," the agency said in a brief statement. "His announced resignation will have no influence on the ongoing criminal proceedings."

Authorities involved in the case said that Valcke, Blatter's top lieutenant, is identified in the indictments as a "high-ranking FIFA official," the New York Times reported. According to prosecutors, that official in 2008 moved $10 million from FIFA accounts to ones controlled by Jack Warner, president of CONCACAF, the regional federation that oversees soccer in North America, Central America and the Caribbean. Valcke was not named in the indictments and has not been accused of a crime.

Those charged include FIFA Vice President Jeffrey Webb; Julio Rocha, the organization's development officer; Eduardo Li, an executive committee member-elect; Eugenia Figueredo, a vice president and executive committee member; and Jose Maria Marin, a member of the organizing committee for the Olympic soccer tournaments.

Times staff writers Kevin Baxter, Tiffany Hsu, Richard Serrano and Nathan Fenno contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

6:06 p.m.: This post has been updated with information from federal law enforcement.

4:06 p.m.: This post has been updated with reaction from Alexandra Wrage.

2:41 p.m.: This post has been updated with information from a federal law enforcement source.

1:52 p.m.: This post has been updated with reaction from Adidas and McDonald's.

12:57 p.m.: This post has been updated with a statement from Sunil Gulati, the head of U.S. Soccer.

12:36 a.m.: This post has been updated with statements from World Cup sponsor Coca-Cola and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach.

10:11 a.m.: This post has been updated with comments from FIFA officials and additional backgrounsd

The post was originally published at 9:50 a.m.

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