The world’s most popular sport is in the midst of the biggest crisis in its history. Senior figures past and present stand charged with fraud, major sponsors are threatening to withdraw support and FIFA president Sepp Blatter is under pressure to stand down.
If all that sounds bad enough, things are about to get worse. The Times reports that European football chiefs are moving to unseat Blatter as head of the sport’s governing body after a US indictment brought charges against 14 people dating back two decades, raising doubts on whether Russia and Qatar can host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
After two sets of dawn raids in Switzerland on Wednesday, FIFA officials were charged with taking $150m in bribes in return for selling marketing rights to the tournament, money laundering, wire fraud and racketeering.
There are also claims that the South African government paid $10m to secure the 2010 World Cup tournament, with the cash being transferred via a FIFA bank account.
Two of those charged are vice-presidents Jeffrey Webb of the Cayman Islands and Eugenio Figueredo of Uruguay. Both could face 20 years in prison if convicted.
US attorney general Loretta Lynch said: “The indictment alleges corruption that is rampant, systemic, and deep-rooted both abroad and here in the United States.
“It spans at least two generations of soccer officials who, as alleged, have abused their positions of trust to acquire millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks.”
One of FIFA’s key sponsors, Visa, has threatened to pull out of its contract with the group, issuing a statement expressing its “disappointment and concern with Fifa”. Adidas and Coca-Cola are also calling for it to reform its practices, while Hyundai Motor Company, one of the major sponsors for the 2018 World Cup, said: “We expect all of our partners to maintain strong ethical standards and operate with transparency.”
Uefa, European football’s governing body, has now called on FIFA to halt the election tomorrow that is set to see Blatter, 79, elected to a fifth term as global president. Uefa secretary-general Gianni Infantino said: “Today’s events are a disaster for FIFA and tarnish the image of football as a whole.” He added that Uefa wanted complete change at the top of FIFA.
Blatter has rejected calls to stand down, however, and has tried to spin the inquiries as good news.
“As unfortunate as these events are, it should be clear that we welcome the actions and the investigations by the US and Swiss authorities and believe that it will help to reinforce measures that Fifa has already taken to root out any wrongdoing in football,” he said in a statement last night.
He did acknowledge, however, that it was a “difficult time” for football.
Neither the FBI nor Swiss prosecutors have managed to unearth any actionable evidence against Blatter himself. He has made it clear that he has no intention of withdrawing from Friday’s election.
Calls for Blatter to go are particularly strong in England, where anger runs deep over FIFA’s controversial decision to choose Russia to host the 2018 World Cup. Both Prince William and David Beckham, who played senior roles in England’s bid, said they were lied to by FIFA officials.
FA chairman Greg Dyke said last night: “Things are changing very quickly and our delegation to the FIFA congress will discuss the position and what we should do about it with our colleagues in Uefa.”
UKIP deputy leader Paul Nuttall said: “Sepp Blatter’s position as FIFA president was already on shaky ground but now surely no one will argue that it is in any way tenable.