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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Bin Hammam withdraws from FIFA presidential race amid fresh allegations against Qatar


Asian Football Confederation (AFC) chief Mohamed Bin Hammam has withdrawn his candidacy in world soccer body FIFA’s presidential election that is mired by accusation of corruption against Mr. Bin Hammam and incumbent Sepp Blatter.

Mr. Bin Hammam’s announcement in a statement on his website came hours before he, Mr. Blatter and three other FIFA officials are scheduled to be questioned in Zurich on Sunday by FIFA’s ethics committee. Mr. Hammam’s surprising decision is believed to have been taken in consultation with his lawyers with whom he has been huddled for the past 48 hours. British newspaper The Sunday Times said hours after Mr. Bin Hammam’s withdrawal that it had seen fresh evidence of Qatari wrongdoing in its successful bid to win the right to host the 2022 World Cup.

“Recent events have left me hurt and disappointed,” Mr. Bin Hammam, a Qatari FIFA executive committee member said. “The game itself and the people who love it around the world must come first. It is for this reason that I announce my withdrawal from the presidential election.”

The mounting allegations against Qatar cast serious questions about Mr. Bin Hamamm’s FIFA candidacy irrespective of whether he is found to have engaged in illicit practices in his election campaign. Mr. Bin Hammam, a key player in Qatar’s World Cup bid campaign, is likely to find it increasingly difficult to deny that he had any knowledge of alleged Qatari bribery and circumvention of FIFA rules.

Bitter infighting between Mr. Blatter, who has headed FIFA for the past 13 years, and Mr. Bin Hammam, a Qatari national with close ties to the Gulf state’s ruling family, that produced the FIFA investigation has cast a shadow over the organization’s presidential election scheduled for June 1, the second and last day of FIFA’s general assembly.

It is unclear how FIFA believes it can credibly go ahead with the elections following Mr. Bin Hamamm’s withdrawal and amid a spiraling corruption scandal, the biggest since its founding 107 years ago.

Mr. Bin Hammam campaigned for the election on a platform that calls for greater transparency within FIFA and blames Mr. Blatter for the organization’s tarnished image. FIFA has witnessed a series of corruption scandals in recent months with 9 of its 24 executive committee members accused of corruption or improper behavior.

Two of the nine were banned last year after having been taped by The Sunday Times soliciting bribes.

The corruption charges include allegations that Qatar may have won the right to host the 2022 World Cup by bribing at least two of FIFA’s executive committee. The investigation into Mr. Bin Hammam and Mr. Blatter could lead to a cancellation of the FIFA executive committee vote last December that awarded the tournament to the Gulf state. Qatar has denied that it employed bribery in its successful bid campaign.

The Sunday Times said on Sunday that it had seen new documentary evidence that allegedly showed how Qatar plotted to circumvent FIFA rules in its bid. It said it had presented the evidence to a British parliamentary enquiry into soccer governance.

The evidence, the paper said, showed that Qatar had offered FIFA executive committee members cash for projects in exchange for their votes. It said the evidence was included in the January 4, 2010 minutes of a Qatari bid team meeting disclosed by an unidentified whistle blower, who failed to appear before FIFA’s ethic committee last Wednesday. The evidence suggests that Qatar considered setting up certain "initiatives" regardless of whether they were allowed under FIFA rules.

The minutes discuss plans to announce up to three "CSR" (corporate social responsibility) initiatives during last July's World Cup finals in South Africa, which would violate FIFA bidding guidelines. 

The paper says the minutes quote Ali al-Thawadi, the Qatar bid's deputy chief executive who chaired the January 4 meeting, as saying “If FIFA regulations prevent these initiatives then a way has to be found to do these under a different name ...."

In the investigation, Mr. Bin Hammam and fellow board member Jack Warner stand accused of handing out about $2 million in cash to Caribbean soccer officials labeled as development of the sport but intended to buy their support for the AFC chief’s candidacy.

The FIFA investigation was sparked by allegations by FIFA executive committee member Chuck Blazer that Messrs. Bin Hammam and Warner had made the offer to Caribbean Football Union (CFU) members at a meeting on May 10 and 11 in Trinidad.

Mr. Bin Hammam asserted earlier that the timing of the accusations so close to the FIFA presidential election suggests they were part of a plan to “damage” him and “force him to withdraw as a candidate for the FIFA presidency.”

Messrs. Bin Hammam and Warner have denied any wrongdoing and Mr. Bin Hammam has threatened to take legal action if he is not cleared of the charged.

Mr. Blatter was summoned for questioning by the FIFA ethics committee at Mr. Bin Hammam’s request after the AFC chief asserted that Mr. Blatter was aware of the CFU payments.

“I pray that my withdrawal will not be tied to the investigation,” Bin Hammam said on his website. He said that he planned to attend today’s hearing “to clear my name from the baseless allegations that have been made against me.”

Mr. Blatter, in a May 26 column on the Inside World Football website, said that the charges against Messrs. Bin Hammam and Warner, who oversees the sport in the Caribbean, “brought him no joy.” He also said that claims that the matter was masterminded by him were “ludicrous and completely reprehensible.”

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