The financial cost of Fifa's corruption scandal began to hit home yesterday when Sepp Blatter's embattled organisation admitted it was struggling to attract new sponsors and was heavily criticised by the chief executive of Visa, a key commercial partner.
On the eve of the 2018 World Cup qualifying draw in Saint Petersburg, which will be attended by Blatter, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and, attracting rather less international opprobrium, Roy Hodgson, Fifa’s response to the latest crisis was described as “wholly inadequate” by Visa.
The company’s chief executive, Charlie Scharf, said that no “meaningful” change could be enacted until Blatter left on 26 February, when a new president will be elected by the 209 member nations. Scharf said: Fifa’s “subsequent responses [to the FBI and Swiss investigations] are wholly inadequate and continue to show its lack of awareness of the seriousness of the changes which are needed.
“To this end, we believe two things need to happen to ensure credible reform. First, an independent, third-party commission led by one or more impartial leaders is critical to formulate reforms. Second, we believe no meaningful reform can be made under Fifa’s existing leadership.”
Blatter’s key aide, the Fifa general secretary Jérôme Valcke, announced that he would also be quitting when the president steps down in February. Valcke conceded that the current investigations into Fifa, which led to seven officials being arrested in Zurich in raids in May, with a total of 18 having been indicted by the FBI, were affecting the organisation’s capacity to attract World Cup sponsors.
Fifa has not found a replacement for the airline Emirates, one of the six major sponsors, which finished its association at the end of last year. No company has committed itself to any of the 20 regional sponsorship opportunities for the 2018 World Cup finals.
Valcke said: “The current situation doesn’t help to finalise any new agreements, that is a fact. And I’m sure until the election on 26 February there will not be any major announcements.”
Fifa officials will hold a meeting with Coca-Cola, Visa and McDonald’s next month to inform them of the progress made in purging the organisation of corruption. Domenico Scala, the independent chairman of Fifa’s audit and compliance committee, has been suggested as a possible head of a reform group within Fifa.Meanwhile, the hosts Russia were mired in more accusations of being soft on racism in their domestic game in the build-up to today’s draw. The Brazil international Hulk, who plays for Zenit Saint Petersburg, was withdrawn from playing a part in the draw after complaining of racism “at almost every match”. The Russian authorities claimed it was simply a case of playing commitments, although Zenit’s schedule is unchanged.
On Monday, Hulk said: “It [racism] happens at almost every match in Russia but the world does not hear about it because they try to keep it quiet. I see it happening all the time. I used to get really angry about it but now I just send a kiss to the fans and try not to get angry.”
The former Arsenal striker Emmanuel Frimpong, who now plays for FC Ufa in the Bashkortostan region, described Russian football attitudes towards racism as “beyond a joke”. He was suspended for two games for giving the finger to Spartak Moscow fans who, he said, directed monkey chants at him.
Hodgson arrived in St Petersburg yesterday for the draw, although he is aware that he there is a good chance that he will not be in charge of the team by the time England embark on 2018 World Cup qualification. The new Football Association chief executive, Martin Glenn, said again yesterday that the FA would look at Hodgson’s contract only after Euro 2016.Hodgson is contracted until the end of Euro 2016, with the FA reluctant to commit to a future with him without seeing first how the team perform in France. Hodgson turns 68 next month and it is likely that he will retire once he leaves the England job. He says he is happy with the situation as it stands and will not push the FA to make a decision on his future before next summer.
England and Wales have been placed among Europe’s top seeds by virtue of their Fifa ranking, while France and Italy are all in the second pot and could be drawn against those two home nation teams. England will be drawn into one of the seven six-team European qualifying groups. There will also be two five-team groups. All group winners will qualify, with the eight best runners-up playing off for a place in the finals. Scotland and Northern Ireland are both seeded in the third pot.