13 Jun 2015

Pressure mounts on FIFA

2:41 pm on 13 June 2015

Interpol has suspended a 20-million-euro sports "integrity" agreement with FIFA at the end of a testing week for soccer's scandal-hit ruling body that saw its chief spokesman quit, bidding for the 2026 World Cup shelved, and records seized from its Zurich headquarters.

Sepp Blatter reacts after his re-election as president of FIFA in Zurich on 30 May (NZST).

Sepp Blatter reacts after his re-election as president of FIFA in Zurich. Photo: AFP

FIFA is also facing calls from the European parliament for its outgoing president, Sepp Blatter, to step aside at once.

Blatter resigned last week following the arrests of several FIFA officials on corruption charges brought by law enforcement authorities in America.

The former president is still at his desk, however, as FIFA prepares for new presidential elections sometime between December and March.

Interpol's decision to freeze funding from FIFA to fight match fixing and illegal gambling was perhaps inevitable, coming only days after the international police organisation put two former FIFA officials on its most-wanted list and the corruption crisis in world soccer deepened.

The increasing damage to FIFA's reputation raised questions about how long other associated bodies and even sponsors would continue to work with it.

"The real damage of this decision by Interpol is the wider perception that conflicted organisations are now deserting FIFA. It further exacerbates FIFA's 'unclean' image and its escalating isolation," said Chris Eaton, an ex-Interpol officer and former FIFA adviser on anti-corruption, now with the International Center for Sport Security.

Interpol's decision was a disappointment, FIFA said, since the 2011 "integrity in sport" programme was not connected to the "current issues" it faced.

Latest among those issues was the announcement on Thursday by communications director Walter de Gregorio, the public face of FIFA, that he was resigning after telling a joke at the expense of his employers.

He had to face the media when the scandal erupted two weeks ago after a raid on a Zurich hotel where seven soccer officials, wanted by U.S. prosecutors on bribery and corruption charges, were rounded up by Swiss police.

De Gregorio's departure came after he appeared on Swiss TV and was asked to tell his favourite joke.

It was this: "The FIFA president, secretary general and media director are sitting in a car. Who's driving. Answer? The police."

In its most recent dealings with the Swiss police, who are conducting a criminal investigation into the award of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar, FIFA this week handed over computer data including records from Blatter's office.

And as the scandal worsened, FIFA postponed the bidding for the right to host the 2026 World Cup, with secretary general Jerome Valcke saying during a visit to one of Russia's World Cup venues that it would be "nonsense" to start the process under present circumstances.

FIFA's Jerome Valcke speaks during a press conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on 20 January.

FIFA's Jerome Valcke speaks during a press conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on 20 January. Photo: AFP

Then, perhaps reflecting the growing crisis, the usually composed Valcke unburdened himself of an emotional tirade, saying he was being destroyed by the media in his native France and defending his decision to sign off on a US$10 million payment at the centre of the bribery investigation.

Brandishing his pen, a clearly irritated Valcke demanded of journalists: "You want me to take this pen and to hit my head and say 'Hey! I have been stupid, I should have asked many more questions?'"

"You have decided that after Blatter I have to be next head to be cut?" Valcke said at a news conference in the Russian city of Samara on Wednesday.

Despite announcing his resignation Blatter has remained at his desk, saying he wants to usher in reforms at FIFA before his successor is chosen. FIFA announced that would happen at an election some time between December and February.

The German Football Association meanwhile came up with a radical reform plan under which FIFA's voting structure should be based on the "size and sporting relevance" of its member federations.

At present, each of FIFA's 209 members has a vote, giving soccer power-houses Germany and Brazil the same influence as tiny Pacific islands.

Soccer chiefs in developing countries, who have enjoyed generous funding to promote the game from FIFA during Blatter's 17 years in power, denounced the plan as unfair and racist.

The South American confederation CONMEBOL meanwhile came under pressure of its own when Congress in Paraguay, where the soccer body is based, approved a measure withdrawing immunity from its Asuncion headquarters.

A draft bill to remove the immunity was put to Congress last month after U.S. authorities announced indictments of 14 past and present senior soccer officials and sports media executives connected to FIFA.

"There is an urgent need to repeal this law and get on with the investigation," Senator Juan Carlos Galaverna said during debate over the measure, which is expected to be signed into law by President Horacio Cartes.