Support for Sepp Blatter extending his 17-year hold over global soccer weakened before his re-election bid, while the FIFA president blamed countries missing out on hosting the World Cup for his organization’s troubles.
His longtime backers in the Caribbean said they may shift their support to his rival, Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, as pressure grew following criminal investigations on two continents into soccer’s governing body. The U.S. and Canada also announced support for the Jordanian prince, while South American delegates said the group may not vote as a bloc.
“It will be a close call,” Michael van Praag, the Dutch soccer head who dropped out of the election race last week, said as he entered the FIFA congress. “There are more people who want a change than you might think. If I were him I would reconsider” his position even if he wins, he said.
- Read more - Bomb threat at Zurich venue
FIFA’s 209 members will cast votes in a secret ballot on Friday in Zurich. Blatter, who has received the solid backing of confederations in Africa and Asia representing 100 votes, needs the support of two-thirds of members for a first-round win.
After that, he needs a majority. European governing body UEFA had floated the idea of a boycott, before deciding to participate. Its chief, former French international Michel Platini, publicly urged Blatter to resign.
Zurich police said they received a bomb threat against the congress. Delegates then returned from their lunch break. Earlier, it was briefly interrupted by protesters as Blatter spoke. It wasn’t clear what they were demonstrating about.
Blatter, 79, called for unity to restore FIFA’s standing. He said the decision to award the next two World Cups to Russia, in 2018, and Qatar, in 2022, is at the root of the investigation by prosecutors.
“If two other countries had emerged from the envelope, I think we would not have these problems today,” he told the congress. Nations bidding to host the events included the U.S. and England, a longtime opponent of Blatter. “But we can’t go back in time. We are not prophets.”
A skilled tactician when it comes to soccer politics, Blatter knows the numbers are still probably in his favor even as FIFA is shaken by a widening corruption probe and sponsors step up criticism of the organization.
Speaking to delegates before the vote, Ali promised a “new dawn” for the organization. “It will take a committed leader to fix the mess we are in,” the Jordanian said.
Though Europe is home to soccer’s richest teams, biggest stars and last three World Cup winners, its power on election day is neutered by FIFA’s one-country, one-vote system.
That gives the Caribbean island of Montserrat (population 4,900) as much say in who runs the global game as Germany (population 81 million), which in Brazil last year won its fourth World Cup title.
“I came here without a doubt that I’m going to vote for Blatter,” said Randolph Harris, president of Barbados soccer. Now, “the people of the Caribbean have realized with the latest scandal they have to think carefully about the future.”
The shift by the Caribbean voters is due in part to the FIFA president not voicing support for their regional leader, Jeffrey Webb, after his arrest this week in Zurich, Harris and the president of the Grenada soccer associations said in interviews late Thursday.
“Sepp Blatter made a mistake,” said Cheney Joseph, the Grenada soccer president, who declined to specify for whom he’d cast his vote. “The day before, he was hugging Jeff.”
A FIFA spokesman said that Brazilian soccer federation President Marco Polo del Nero left Switzerland last night. He said he didn’t know the reason. His predecessor, Jose Maria Marin, was among the officials arrested in Zurich two days ago.
Swiss and American officials have opened investigations into FIFA, alleging corruption, racketeering and other misdeeds in the group’s management and its decision to award the next two World Cups to Russia and Qatar. Though Blatter hasn’t been charged, nine FIFA officials and five others were among 14 people named in the U.S. indictments.
During Blatter’s tenure, FIFA’s income has ballooned -- the latest World Cup tournament generated almost $5 billion in revenue -- and more than $1 billion of that was shared with member nations via so-called “solidarity” programs.
Some regional confederations vote as blocs in presidential elections. Though in theory all of UEFA’s 53 members could oppose Blatter, an unlikely scenario, they will be outweighed by the 56 countries that belong to the Confederation of African Football, which in September decided to back the incumbent.
Former FIFA Vice President Jack Warner, one of those indicted, was released Thursday after a night in jail in Port of Spain, Trinidad, and spoke with reporters and supporters while awaiting an extradition hearing.
“If I have been in FIFA for 30 years and I have been thieving all the money, who give me the money?” Warner asked, and a crowd member called out “Blatter.”
“And why it is he ain’t charged?” Warner responded.