LONDON — Soccer’s World Cup plans were cast into chaos Tuesday as Sepp Blatter announced that he would stand down as president of FIFA. At a shock press conference just four days after he was re-elected as the most powerful man in world sports, Blatter asked the organization to select a new leader.
Blatter’s stunning departure from soccer will reopen the battle to host the next two World Cups after the selection process was mired by allegations of bribery. The United States finished second in the voting for the 2022 tournament that went to Qatar, but widespread reports of illegal payments have raised questions over the legitimacy of the Gulf emirate’s hosting—to say nothing of its use of what’s been called slave labor.
Vladimir Putin, who took a close personal interest in Russia’s successful 2018 bid, will also be nervous Tuesday night as his friend Blatter announced that he will stand down from FIFA as soon as a successor is elected. The process is expected to be complete by March 2016.
The new president will be forced to hold a thorough internal investigation into the organization and, if FBI claims are to be believed, it seems likely that the World Cup bidding process for 2018 and 2022 would be heavily criticized. That would make it extremely difficult not to re-evaluate who should host the tournaments.
Dawn raids on a luxury hotel in Switzerland last week plunged soccer’s governing body into the most serious crisis in its 111-year history. An indictment unsealed in Brooklyn outlined charges against 14 men accused of operating a scheme of money laundering, fraud, and cover-ups for 24 years. Among those arrested were FIFA’s vice president and a former vice president.
Blatter ignored the clamor from prime ministers, presidents, and European football leaders to stand down last week or at least postpone the presidential election. “Why would I step down?” he told Swiss TV. “That would mean I recognize that I did wrong.”
Just four days later, he returned to the stage at FIFA’s headquarters in Zurich to announce that he would be stepping down after all. The New York Times reported that the FBI is continuing to build a case on his personal role in the alleged corruption, but Blatter claimed it was the reaction of the football world that forced him to retire early.
“I have decided to lay down my mandate,” he said. “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.”
“What matters to me more than anything is that when all of this is over, football is the winner,” Blatter said.
Greg Dyke, head of the English Football Association and one of Blatter’s most outspoken critics, said he was delighted by the change of heart.
“At long last we can sort out FIFA. We can go back to looking at those two World Cups. If I were Qatar right now I wouldn’t be feeling very comfortable.”
Michel Platini, the former star player for France and current boss of European football, is the favorite to replace Blatter. Last week, Platini told Blatter to his face that he must stand down for the good of football.
“It was a difficult decision, a brave decision, and the right decision,” he said today.
Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan, who ran against Blatter for president last week, confirmed that he would run again, as did David Ginola, who dropped out of the last race a few weeks into his candidacy.
Blatter’s sudden resignation announcement came after a disastrous day of PR management that was unraveling fast in the face of further allegations and freshly leaked evidence.
The most damning of the FBI’s world soccer allegations concerns a $10 million payment made direct from FIFA’s headquarters to the private bank account of a man who has been described as one of the most corrupt in sporting history.
American investigators say this payment may have provided the most direct evidence of collusion at the very top of FIFA. Shaken soccer officials responded earlier in the day by trying to pin it on a dead man.
An internal document contradicting claims that FIFA’s former finance chief had been the man to authorize the payment gave the impression that FIFA was continuing to cover up allegations of corruption.
U.S. authorities claimed the $10 million in cash was a bribe intended to secure support for South Africa hosting the 2010 World Cup. South Africa was unable to find the vast sum of money, so it asked FIFA to send the funds on their behalf.
At the end of last week, FIFA spokepeople said they were not at liberty to discuss an ongoing investigation and were thus unable to explain why they had done so. That was before the allegations had reached yet higher into the organization, however.
Reports in the U.K. over the weekend claimed that the payment must have been approved by Jérôme Valcke, FIFA’s general secretary and Blatter’s No. 2. On Tuesday, The New York Times cited anonymous American officials who said Valcke was indeed the “high-ranking FIFA official” fingered in the indictment that was accused of making the payment in 2008.
After the latest claims, FIFA decided that it could now address the reports. In a statement released Tuesday morning, a spokesman said it was not Valcke who authorized the payment that went directly into the private account of Trinidadian official Jack Warner, who was the head of soccer in North and Central America and the Caribbean at the time. The FIFA statement said the transfer of funds was authorized by the chairman of FIFA’s finance committee, Julio Grondona.
So, FIFA was claiming to offer transparency at last. What did this man have to say about his extraordinary decision to approve the unusual payment?
Nothing. Grondona had suffered an aortic aneurysm and died suddenly last summer.
The FIFA statement also claimed these funds were not a bribe; this was an altruistic act of charity by the South African Football Association, which had asked FIFA to help it set up “The Diaspora Legacy Programme.” This project was intended “to support the African diaspora in Caribbean countries” so that South Africa could share the spoils of their World Cup legacy.
The money was transferred to Warner but the project was never announced in either the South African or the Caribbean press. In fact, Google and media database searches show no public mention of the program anywhere in the world before this week.
A letter dated March 2008 that emerged today from the South African FA to FIFA about the $10 million payment was addressed to Valcke and detailed the money “promised” to the personal account of Warner.
“The Diaspora Legacy Programme shall be administered and implemented directly by the president of CONCACAF who shall act as a fiduciary of the Diaspora Legacy Programme Fund of $10 million,” wrote Molefi Oliphant, president of the South African Football Association.
The FBI says $750,000 was shared with Chuck Blazer, the U.S. soccer official who has co-operated with American investigators. It’s unclear what happened to the rest of the cash, but the diaspora is still waiting.