Two of soccer’s most powerful men were suspended by the sport’s governing body pending an independent investigation into allegations they paid bribes to solicit votes for FIFA’s presidency.
Mohamed Bin Hammam, who’s responsible for the sport in Asia, is accused of colluding with North and Central American soccer head Jack Warner to arrange a meeting where bribes of $40,000 were offered to soccer officials in the Caribbean. Bin Hammam stood down today as a candidate in the June 1 election against incumbent Sepp Blatter. Blatter won’t face an inquiry over claims he knew about the meeting and didn’t report it, FIFA’s ethics committee decided yesterday.
“We are satisfied that there is a case to be answered, a full inquiry is going to be held in due course,” Petrus Damaseb, the Namibian chairman of the ethics panel, told reporters at a press conference in Zurich.
Bin Hammam said he was confused by the suspensions, and said the punishment was disproportionate to the ethics committee’s comments.
The ethics committee “did not find this evidence sufficient to convict me,” the Qatari said in a statement. “Consequently, I should have been given the benefit of doubt but instead, I have been banned from all football activities.”
The scandal has roiled the sport, and increased pressure on governing body FIFA, which generates $4 billion from its World Cup, to reform.
The organization had already been trying to fend off allegations of improper conduct by its decision-making body during the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups that ended with sport’s most-watched event being handed to Russia and desert-state Qatar. Nine of the executive’s 24 members have now either faced investigations or have been sanctioned for wrongdoing in the past year.
“FIFA’s reputation is not at the highest, that’s clear, and it’s sad. Definitely there needs to be a change,” said FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke, who was also present at the press conference. “I want to make sure that FIFA will make the necessary changes to make sure that institution has all the systems in place to avoid this happening again.”
Valcke brandished a sheet of paper saying it was an e-mail he’d received at 5.49 p.m. yesterday from the Puerto Rican soccer federation’s president saying he’d taken the money at the May 10-11 meeting and now wanted to return it.
Warner and Bin Hammam deny the allegations that were brought to FIFA by Chuck Blazer, the U.S. member on its executive panel and a long-time ally of Warner. Debbie Minguell and Jason Sylvester, from the Caribbean Football Union, were also suspended for allegedly breaching FIFA’s code of ethics and its disciplinary code, according to a statement from FIFA.
Warner, in a statement to the British Broadcasting Corp., said he was surprised by his suspension.
“I will vigorously defend my reputation as well as the reputation of the rest of the Caribbean members,” he told the BBC.
Blatter, 75, has been FIFA president since 1998. While he’s received credit for taking the World Cup to Africa for the first time when it was hosted by South Africa last year, he’s also faced criticism that he’s not been tough on improper practices within the organization. Warner was sanctioned for illegally selling World Cup tickets but retained his place on FIFA’s executive committee. Blatter in a meeting earlier this month vowed to deal with the corruption allegations “once and for all.”
Blatter said in a statement he regretted what has happened in recent days and weeks.
“I do not wish to comment in detail,” he said. “FIFA’s image has suffered a great deal as a result, much to the disappointment of FIFA itself and all football fans.”
Damaseb, who’s a judge, said Blatter was cleared because the evidence presented wasn’t enough to clear the “low” threshold needed to conduct a further investigation. He said Blatter claimed he was advised by Warner about the plan to make the payments and told him not to go through with it. He didn’t report that matter because he feared accusations of sabotaging Bin Hammam’s campaign, Damaseb said.
Valcke said the election would still go ahead in three days unless 75 percent of FIFA’s 208 member associations voted to scrap it on the day of the ballot. The Frenchman, FIFA’s highest non-elected official, also gave his backing to Blatter.
England’s Football Association said it would abstain from the elections. It said it couldn’t vote for Blatter or Bin Hammam, who lobbied for his native Qatar before his country’s surprise World Cup vote win ahead of the U.S., Australia, Japan and Korea.
The F.A. submitted a 200-page report written by a senior U.K. lawyer to FIFA after its former chairman alleged four officials had sought favors to vote for England’s failed 2018 bid. Valcke said the report cleared the officials of wrongdoing.
Meanwhile Blazer, who’s been close to Warner since helping the official claim the presidency of the Concacaf region in 1990 said, he “did what he had to do.” Blazer is also Concacaf’s general secretary.
“On a personal level it’s a matter that I’ll have nightmares about for years,” Blazer said in an interview. “Over 21 years building something together, unfortunately, I’ve also seen this situation break down now and it’s really unfortunate but I still had to do what I needed to do.”
Warner alleged in a written submission that Blazer mounted a campaign to undermine Bin Hammam because of the U.S.’s defeat to Qatar in the World Cup bidding race.