As world scrutinizes FIFA, Sepp Blatter condemns 'actions of a few'

As world scrutinizes FIFA, Sepp Blatter condemns 'actions of a few'
FIFA President Sepp Blatter speaks during the opening ceremony of the FIFA Congress in Zurich, Switzerland, on Thursday. (Walter Bieri / EPA)

A day after 18 individuals and two companies were named in connection with a wide-ranging corruption scandal that rocked world soccer, FIFA President Sepp Blatter vowed to help officials root out wrongdoing "from top to bottom" and regain the trust of fans worldwide.

Also on Thursday, the president of U.S. Soccer said that in Friday's vote for the position of FIFA's top executive, he and the Canadian federation will back Blatter's sole rival.


Speaking at the opening ceremony of FIFA's annual meeting, where top soccer officials had gathered before Wednesday's arrests in a Zurich hotel, Blatter said the corruption allegations had "cast a long shadow" over soccer.

"Actions of individuals bring shame and humiliation on football and demand action from us all," Blatter told the audience. "We cannot allow the reputation of football and FIFA to be dragged through the mud any longer."

Blatter, who has headed the international soccer organization for 17 years, was not named in Wednesday's indictments.

He said Thursday that he knows many hold him "ultimately responsible for the actions and reputation of the global football community." But, he added, "I cannot monitor everyone all of the time. If people want to do wrong, they will also try to hide it."

Blatter's remarks came as part of an opening ceremony that, held in a theater adjacent to a soccer stadium, was one part pageant, one part positioning.

Outside, youthful flag-bearers joked around after taking the stage. Shortly after Blatter made his remarks inside the venue, a revue unfolded, including a performance of traditional Swiss music and a piece that verged on performance art featuring dancers dribbling holographic soccer balls.

Pressure has been mounting for Blatter to resign in the wake of the corruption scandal, with sponsors and member football associations hammering the soccer executive on Thursday.

In response, Blatter convened an emergency meeting with the heads of the sport's six continental associations, according to FIFA, soccer's governing body. Among the attendees was Michel Platini, the head of the European football association UEFA and one of the voices calling for Blatter to step down.

The meeting was held behind closed doors, and Blatter made no other public appearances Thursday, skipping a conference on soccer medical issues at which he was scheduled to speak.

On Thursday, Blatter ignored demands for him to step down, calling for the punishment of those who are found to be corrupt and asking members to make this week's meeting a "turning point" for the organization. "The next few months will not be easy for FIFA," he said. "I am sure more bad news may follow. But it is necessary to begin to restore trust in our organization."

FIFA officials are gathering in Zurich for the organization's annual meeting, where they are scheduled to hash out a number of issues and, on Friday, vote‎ on a president.

Those proceedings were interrupted Wednesday by an FBI-led raid at an upscale hotel in central Zurich, with authorities arresting seven top FIFA officials. U.S. prosecutors later announced a 47-count indictment that focused on 14 high-ranking people with connections to the soccer world and cited bribes in excess of $150 ‎million. The allegations largely centered on events and revenue in the Americas.

The remaining defendants named in the indictment are expected to be arrested and extradited to the United States.


Jack Warner, a former FIFA vice president who resigned in 2011 amid an ethics probe, surrendered Wednesday to authorities in Trinidad and Tobago. He was ordered to surrender his passport and his bail was set at approximately $400,000, Trinidad and Tobago Atty. Gen. Garvin Nicholas said.

Warner was released on bail Thursday evening, police spokeswoman Ellen Lewis told The Times. Judicial officer Abraham Ali told the Associated Press that Warner left the jail in an ambulance after complaining of exhaustion.

Aaron Davidson, a U.S. citizen and president of Traffic Sports USA Inc., which has pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy, is in custody, according to an FBI spokesman, but no other arrest details were given.

Argentina's foreign ministry confirmed it received an arrest and extradition request for three Argentine nationals linked to the scandal, but it was unclear whether any arrests had been made. U.S. officials are seeking to extradite Alejandro Burzaco, a sports marketing executive, and Hugo and Mariano Jinkis, controlling principals of another Argentina-based sports marketing firm.

Officials in Paraguay have received an extradition request for Nicolas Leoz, a former FIFA executive committee member, they said, but have not arrested him because he has been hospitalized. Leoz's attorney told the Associated Press he is being treated for the flu.

Brazil's Ministry of Justice confirmed that U.S. officials have requested "international legal cooperation" regarding Jose Margulies, a controlling principal of Valente Corp., who is also named in the indictment and allegedly served as an intermediary for the bribes.

In a separate investigation, Swiss authorities said they are looking into whether FIFA's awarding of the 2018‎ World Cup to Russia and 2022 tournament to Qatar was improper. An earlier internal investigation by FIFA found there was no material wrongdoing.

Blatter, who maintains that he had no knowledge of the alleged ‎activities cited in the indictment, said in a statement that he welcomed the oversight.

The FIFA chief‎ has weathered corruption scandals before, but the indictment on federal charges in the U.S. -- combined with the high-profile nature of the arrests -- has intensified ‎calls for a change in the organization.

Blatter is running for a fifth four-year term in an election contested by only one other candidate, Jordan's Prince Ali bin al-Hussein. ‎But many, including Platini and Greg Dyke, chief of England's Football Assn., have called for the election to be postponed until further clarity can be reached concerning the corruption charges. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius also weighed in Thursday with his preference for a postponement of the vote.

Just last week, it seemed Blatter surely would win reelection. That has changed.

"I think you will see a lot closer vote than people were projecting some weeks ago," U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati, a member of FIFA's executive committee, said Thursday. He also said that he would vote for Al-Hussein -- not a surprise, as the U.S. nominated the Jordanian prince for the position -- and that Canada's federation would vote for Al-Hussein as well.

Platini held a news conference Thur‎sday in which he continued the barrage of criticism against Blatter's FIFA. "We cannot continue like this," he said, adding that if Blatter was reelected Platini and UEFA would convene with European associations to decide if national teams should pull out of FIFA, a nuclear option of sorts.


During the news conference, the UEFA chief offered his theory of the key to Blatter's longevity in office.‎ "FIFA allows some people to survive, so they're scared to go against the system.‎ It pays for their travel." Platini also said ‎"a majority" of UEFA associations would be voting for Ali.

Nevertheless, a loss for Blatter would be far from certain, a possibility Platini acknowledged. Despite the outcry by a number of delegates from larger soccer associations, each of ‎the 209 FIFA members receive only one vote, and it's difficult to know which way many of the smaller associations‎ would go.

Still, Blatter could opt to postpone the election in the hope that the controversy cools down.

It was not just soccer insiders who were decrying Blatter on Thursday. Credit card giant Visa Inc. became the loudest voice among a group of FIFA sponsors to criticize the organization. In a statement, the company said it would "reassess our partnership" if "swift and immediate steps to address these issues" weren't taken. It did not mention Blatter specifically.

The FIFA chief did get support from one corner of the soccer world when the Asian football‎ association expressed its preference that the Friday vote go ahead as planned.

The news also took a geopolitical turn, as Russian President Vladimir Putin described the investigations as "yet another evident attempt to derail Mr. Blatter's reelection."

Putin also suggested that the U.S.-led arrests had an ulterior motive -- to throw into question Russia's hosting of the 2018 World Cup.

Zeitchik reported from Zurich and Mai-Duc from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Kevin Baxter contributed to this report.