Fifa leader Sepp Blatter has defended his actions battling corruption ahead of a vote to decide on whether he remains as president of football’s beleaguered world body.
But Blatter expressed doubts about timing of the arrests of seven top football officials just two days ahead of the election he has been strong favourite to win.
“I am not saying it was a coincidence. But I do have a small question mark,” the Swiss official told the start of FIFA’s annual congress.
Blatter, 79, is being challenged by Prince Ali bin Al Hussein, a Fifa vice president. The prince, strongly backed by Europe’s football powers, has campaigned on the need for change at the top of the scandal-tainted body.
Fifa was rocked on Wednesday by the arrest of seven officials in a dawn raid on their Zurich hotel. They now face extradition to the United States where they are accused of accepting tens of millions of dollars.
Separately, Swiss investigators are looking into the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar. The votes have also been at the centre of corruption allegations.
Blatter said the arrest of the seven at Fifa’s Zurich hotel had unleashed a “storm” and that the congress has “vital decisions” to take. But he added: “Today I appeal for a team spirit, unity, so we can advance together. It may not be easy but that is why we are here today.”
Blatter, who rejected a call to quit from Uefa president Michel Platini, repeated his case that he cannot “monitor” all of football alone and cannot be blamed for the scandals.
“The guilty ones are individuals, not the whole organisation,” he said, calling for greater action by regional confederations and national associations “to put Fifa on the right track.”
Blatter, who has confronted scandals almost since he became president in 1998, is favourite to win a fifth four-year term because he has solid support from the key African and Asian confederations which account for 100 votes among the 209 member federations.
Platini has said a “very large majority” of the 53 European federations who take part will back Prince Ali.
Blatter needs a three-quarters majority to win in the first round. If it goes to a second round, a simple majority will do.
The boss of football’s governing organisation remained defiant as governments joined leading figures of the global game and sponsors in crying foul over Fifa’s corruption scandal.
While Russia’s President Vladimir Putin condemned the US action in asking for the extradition of the seven officials, British Prime Minister David Cameron backed calls for Blatter to resign.
French President Francois Hollande said sports groups selecting the hosts of major events must be “irreproachable”.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that if world football cannot clear up “poisonous” corruption, government agencies would be forced to step in.
Commercial fallout grew with South Korea’s Hyundai Motor, a major sponsor of Fifa, saying it was “extremely concerned” at the new scandals.
Credit card giant Visa has threatened to “reassess” its sponsorship if Fifa does not clean up its act. Coca-Cola, Adidas, McDonald’s and Budweiser have also spoken out. The United Nations says it is reviewing its cooperation accords with Fifa.
The seven arrested football officials — including Fifa vice presidents Jeffrey Webb and Eugenio Figueredo — remained in custody on Friday. Six have indicated they will fight extradition to the United States, Swiss authorities said.
The Concacaf confederation for North and Central America and the Caribbean said it had provisionally dismissed Webb as its president.
An Argentine judge ordered the arrest of three businessmen who were among the 14 people indicted by the United States in its probe.
Brazil said it would investigate with “great vigour” charges against the vice president of the Brazilian Football Confederation and a broadcasting executive also listed on the US indictment sheet.
The corruption storm is unlikely to ease with Blatter’s reelection.
Platini said Uefa could discuss measures against Fifa on June 6.
English Football Association chief executive Greg Dyke, one of the most vociferous Blatter critics, acknowledged that Blatter would probably win.
But he told BBC radio there has been “a shift” in opinion in the past week.
“I hope he doesn’t win but if he does I think the events of this week have turned him into a diminished figure and I can’t see him lasting more than a year or two.”
Dyke said England would consider a boycott of the 2018 World Cup if all of Uefa decided it.
FOLLOW US ON TWITTER @NatSportUAE