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Embattled FIFA boss wins support despite calls to step down

By Mike Collett and Mark Gleeson

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - The head of world soccer, Sepp Blatter, faced calls on Tuesday to hand over the reins of an organization mired in allegations of corruption, but he also secured the backing of regional FIFA delegates gathered in Brazil ahead of the World Cup.

Michael van Praag, president of the Dutch Football Association (KNVB), conveyed one of the bluntest messages yet to the 78-year-old FIFA president, who is widely expected to run for a record fifth term in office in an election next year.

"The image of FIFA has been tarnished by everything that has happened over the last years," Van Praag said in an interview in the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant from Sao Paulo, where he is attending this week's FIFA Congress.

"There are very few people who still take FIFA seriously and whatever way you want to cut and dice it, Blatter is responsible in the end," he added.

Preparations for the World Cup, which kicks off in Sao Paulo on Thursday, have been overshadowed by allegations of corruption surrounding Qatar's bid to stage the 2022 World Cup.

The Sunday Times newspaper said that the former president of the Asian Confederation, Mohamed Bin Hammam, had used money from secret slush funds to help win votes and support for Qatar's successful World Cup bid.

Qatar denies the allegations and says it was not connected to Bin Hammam, while Bin Hammam has yet to comment publicly.

Labour disputes and protests sparked by public anger over how much the tournament has cost Brazil and how the country still struggled to be ready have also marred the run-up to the world's biggest, and most lucrative, sporting event.

Jack Warner, who resigned from soccer's ruling body following a cash-for-votes scandal in 2011, also attacked Blatter, telling Britain's ITV News that, under the Swiss, "FIFA will never change."

Warner was suspended by FIFA pending an investigation into a cash-for-votes scandal while Bin Hammam of Qatar was campaigning for the FIFA presidency in 2011.

Warner and Bin Hammam were accused of trying to bribe Caribbean soccer officials during a meeting in Trinidad, allegations that both men have repeatedly denied. Warner walked away from FIFA while Bin Hammam was later banned for life.

BLATTER COURTS SUPPORT

Underlining divisions within FIFA over how to manage the Qatar scandal and whether Blatter should stay on, he won resounding support from delegates from Oceania, Central America and the Caribbean during meetings in Sao Paulo.

"We will all be behind you if you stand again," David Chung, president of the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC), told Blatter, referring to his expected candidacy which could see him stay in charge until 2019, when he will be 83.

Members of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) stood to applaud the Swiss after his address to them, as Blatter's bid for re-election built up steam despite FIFA's problems.

"I thank you for this support. I thank you, and this inspires me to continue at the helm of FIFA," Blatter told the OFC, leaving officials in little doubt as to his intentions.

Blatter said he would look at "mechanisms" that would guarantee Oceania a direct qualifying place in future World Cup finals. At the moment the winner of the Oceania qualifying competition enters a final playoff round to gain a spot.

The endorsements followed similar shows of support from Asian and African delegates in Sao Paulo on Monday, and if all four soccer bodies backed Blatter unanimously, it would easily be enough to see him re-elected.

The powerful European soccer governing body, UEFA, led by former French soccer great Michel Platini, may seek to take a stand against Blatter, KNVB's Van Praag said.

"The election for the FIFA presidency is only next year, but it will be good if Europe is well prepared and ready to make its choice," he said. "If you are in a post for 16 years there comes a time when you have to ask whether you are still contributing."

Platini supported the Qatari bid, arguing that soccer should seek new frontiers, in this case in the Middle East, to ensure its global appeal continued to grow.

But the award of the tournament to a tiny Gulf state of two million people, with little soccer heritage and soaring summer temperatures, has been argued over from the day it was announced in 2010.

Blatter has since admitted he thought the choice was a mistake, and may mean shifting the tournament to the winter, causing huge disruption to soccer leagues around the world who would have to build their schedules around it.

On Monday, Blatter blasted some of the criticism of Qatar's 2022 bid as racist, and attacked those he said were "plotting" to destroy FIFA. [ID:nL4N0OQ3TA]

Also on Monday, Michael Garcia, the head of FIFA's investigatory chamber of their Ethics Committee, concluded his report on alleged corruption surrounding FIFA officials, which has taken him two years to complete.

He will submit the report to German judge Hans-Joachim Eckert, the head of the Ethics Committee's adjudicatory chamber, in around six weeks. If he finds corruption, soccer officials say Qatar could be stripped of the Cup.

(Writing by Mike Collett-White; editing by Ken Ferris)

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