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Saturday, May 28, 2011

FIFA expands corruption probe to include Blatter alongside Bin Hammam


FIFA president Joseph S. Blatter (L) and Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Mohammed bin Hammam. (File photo)

FIFA president Joseph S. Blatter (L) and Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Mohammed bin Hammam. (File photo)
World soccer body FIFA president Sepp Blatter will be questioned by the organization’s ethic committee alongside his challenger, Asian Football Confederation chief Mohammed Bin Hammam, in next week’s presidential election.

The bitter infighting between Mr. Blatter and Mr. Bin Hammam that produced the FIFA investigation into alleged corruption by Mr. Hammam and other FIFA executive committee members raises the question whether FIFA can legitimately hold a presidential election with allegations of corruption swirling around both candidates.

The inclusion of Mr. Blatter in the investigation comes a day after Mr. Bin Hammam, a Qatari national with close ties to the Gulf state’s ruling family, requested that the FIFA president also be investigated.
“On 26 May 2011, FIFA Executive Committee member Mohammed bin Hammam has requested the FIFA Ethics Committee to open ethics proceedings against FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter on the basis that, in the report submitted by FIFA Executive Committee member Chuck Blazer earlier this week, FIFA Vice-President Jack A. Warner would have informed the FIFA President in advance about alleged cash payments to delegations attending a special meeting of the Caribbean Football Union (CFU) apparently organized jointly by Jack A. Warner and Mohamed bin Hammam on 10 and 11 May 2011 and that the FIFA President would have had no issue with these,” FIFA said in a statement.

The ethics committee is scheduled to question Mr. Blatter, Mr. Bin Hammam and Mr. Warner on Sunday at FIFA headquarters in Zurich. The president election is slated for June 1, the second and last day of the FIFA general assembly.

Mr. Blazer, the US member of the FIFA executive committee, charged that Mr. Bin Hammam and Mr. Warner had offered CFU members at the May meeting in Trinidad 40,000 in cash for development projects in exchange for their votes for Mr. Bin Hammam.

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

Mr. Bin Hammam has threatened to take legal action if he is not cleared of any wrongdoing.

In a statement on Friday, the AFC charged that the investigation of Mr. Bin Hammam was a conspiracy aimed at forcing him to withdraw as a candidate for the FIFA president. The AFC confirmed that Mr. Bin Hammam had met with the CFU earlier this month.

“At this congress, Mr. Bin Hammam presented his program, which included proposals to give more say, more pay, more support and more responsibility to the national associations. Mr. Bin Hammam reiterates that any allegations about him trying to buy votes are completely false,” the AFC statement said.

“It is obvious that these allegations have been made to discredit Mr. Bin Hammam as a candidate in the imminent election for the FIFA presidency. For example, it took 14 days to formulate these allegations, whereas Mr. Bin Hammam was given less than 48 hours to respond. It is quite obvious that, following previous failed attempts, this is part of a final effort to prevent Mr. Bin Hammam from running for the FIFA presidency. Mr. Bin Hammam expects FIFA’s Ethics Committee to see through this tawdry manoeuvre. After analyzing the allegations made against Mr. Bin Hammam, it is difficult to understand how the case could even have been brought before the Committee,” the statement went on to say.

Earlier AFC Vice President Yousuf Al Serkal had come out swinging in favor of Mr. Bin Hammam, who is campaigning on a troubled platform that calls for greater FIFA transparency and blames three-time incumbent president Blatter for the crisis the organization is facing.

Mr. Blatter is “feeling the threat of Asia just because they find that Mohammad Bin Hammam is much more worthy of taking over Fifa. They are attacking Asian football decency without knowing what they are talking about,” Mr. Serkal said in an interview with the Gulf News.

The wave of allegations surrounding the awarding of World Cup tournaments has been further fuelled by a match-fixing scandal disclosed by investigative reporter Zaihan Mohammed of Singapore’s The New Paper. One of the games allegedly fixed by a group of Singaporean match fixers was a friendly in the UAE emirate Sharjah in March between the national teams of Jordan and Kuwait.

FIFA asserts that game that ended in a 1:1 draw was similar to games in Turkey and elsewhere suspected of involving match-fixing. A Singaporean has been arrested in Finland on suspicion of having fixed the matches, but Mr. Serkal asserts that the allegations are an attempt to tarnish the AFC and its chairman, Mr. Bin Hammam.

“There are only two indications here: either the Fifa person doesn't know what is happening in Asian football or the aim is that they only want to disrupt Asian decency. The main thing here would be to see what the objective is behind ‘fixing’ such a match between two Arab countries. This is a figment of his [Blatter] imagination. Blatter has merely created such a story as he is feeling the heat from the Asian challenge,” Mr. Serkal said.

Mr. Serkal accused Mr. Blatter of manipulating the Fifa Ethics Committee “as a tool against people who care about football.” He charged that Mr. Blatter had employed the same tactic against Confederation of African Football (CAF) president Issa Hayatou when he challenged the FIFA president in a past presidential election.

Mr. Hayatou is suspected of being one of two FIFA executive committees to have received $1.5 million from Qatar in exchange for their vote last December.

Mr. Bin Hammam’s election campaign appeared to be lagging even before the latest round of corruption allegations. The AFC chief couldn’t compete against Mr. Blatter’s multibillion dollar public relations machine. His platform moreover consisted mostly of slogans with little indication of how he intended to implement reform of FIFA and repair its tarnished image. Mr. Bin Hammam also seemed to be uncritically toeing the Qatari line on the allegations of corruption. Qatar defensively denied all allegations and only this week said for the first time that it would welcome an independent investigation.

Irrespective of whether FIFA goes ahead with the election at next week’s general assembly, the election campaigns of both candidates as well as mounting questioning of the vote in December that awarded the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 tournament to Qatar lays bare the extent of the governance and reputational crisis engulfing FIFA. Nine of FIFA’s 24 executive committee members face accusations of corruption and improper behavior, two of which already have been sanctioned.

The escalating governance crisis in world soccer threatens not only Mr. Blatter and Mr. Bin Hammam’s presidential ambitions. It also casts a shadow over the strategy of Qatar and other Gulf states to turn themselves into global venues for big sporting events that enhance their international standing and national pride and attract tourist dollars. The FIFA scandal could lead to the awarding of the World Cup to Qatar being cancelled if the allegations of bribery by the Gulf state are proven.

Qatar’s successful bid has won it enemies among the world’s major soccer powers who have fuelled the corruption allegations and raised questions about the viability of its hosting the World Cup in the country’s desert heat as well as it political instability, spotty human rights records, and ability to supply the infrastructure and services needed to host the world’s largest sporting event.

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