Fifa chief under investigation as bribery scandal engulfs football

Sepp Blatter under pressure after allegations by rival leave leadership ballot in disarray
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The Independent Football

With pre-match entertainment including jugglers, illusionists and an all-you-can-eat buffet, it is unsurprising that Sepp Blatter remains undecided about attending tonight's Champions League final at Wembley.

Any juxtaposition with fast-fingered trickery and gluttony is unlikely to be helpful to the Fifa president and his embattled organisation in the coming days.

The extent to which football's global governing body is in the grip of internecine strife that threatens to tear the vastly wealthy organisation apart was underlined yesterday when it placed Mr Blatter under investigation as part of a widening bribery scandal ahead of a ballot next Wednesday to decide whether the 75-year-old Swiss is re-elected to another term as the figurehead of the beautiful game.

The charge against the veteran Fifa president comes from Mohamed bin Hammam, once a close ally of Mr Blatter, but now challenging him for his position. Bin Hammam is himself also under investigation for corruption by the body he seeks to lead.

As a result, the Zurich high temple of the planet's biggest team sport, which recently announced four-year revenues topping $4bn (£2.4bn) for the first time, faces the deeply unedifying spectacle this weekend of having its two potential leaders led before a corruption inquiry. Four days later, one half of this dysfunctional blazer-clad double act will be voted president of Fifa in a secret ballot.

All of this will take place against a background where eight of the 24 Fifa executive committee members who decided the 2018 and 2022 World Cup hosts in December face corruption allegations.

Mr Blatter, accused of turning a blind eye to alleged cash bribes of $40,000 (£24,000) paid earlier this month to Caribbean delegates, must now submit a statement by the end of today to Fifa's ethics committee ahead of a formal hearing tomorrow. In a statement, Mr Blatter said: "I cannot comment on the proceedings that have been opened against me. The facts will speak for themselves."

With the row threatening to overshadow tonight's European footballing showpiece between Manchester United and Barcelona, the Conservative Sports minister, Hugh Robertson, led calls for Wednesday's election to be cancelled, saying the bribery allegations seemingly being traded by rivals and their allies, had become a "farce".

Mr Robertson said: "I don't see how you can have an election process when both the candidates are accused of corruption. It would make a complete nonsense of that process."

The snowballing scandal reinforced calls for an overhaul of Fifa, which has been dogged by claims of corruption, opacity and bloated bureaucracy in recent years. Experts say the organisation is in a similar position to the International Olympic Committee in 1999 when it brought in new rules on transparency following bribery claims about the awarding of the winter games to Salt Lake City.

Grant Wahl, the American sports writer who tried but failed to win sufficient support to run for the Fifa presidency on an anti-corruption ticket, said yesterday: "This is the biggest crisis in the history of Fifa as far as allegations of corruption are concerned. This organisation has a huge problem globally now where the fans of world soccer do not think Fifa is clean."

Fifa has profited hugely in recent years from the deluge of money pouring into football. The governing body's four-yearly accounts to 2010, published in March, showed it had increased its revenues by 59 per cent and nearly doubled its cash reserves to $1.2bn (£720m).

Critics say a lack of transparency, highlighted by December's 2018 World Cup vote in which England were humiliated by exiting in the first round of a secret ballot, makes Fifa a breeding ground for a culture of backhanders and unethical horse trading.

Mr Blatter, who has pledged to reform the body, described this week how he once handed back a cash-filled envelope placed in his pocket by an unnamed individual. Meanwhile, the English FA has submitted a report to Fifa offering evidence to support allegations from former 2018 bid leader Lord Triesman that four vote-carrying delegates made improper requests for inducements.

Mr Bin Hammam, 62, the Qatari head of the Asia Football Confederation, was accused last week along with Fifa vice-president Jack Warner of offering cash bribes to up to 25 delegates at a conference in Trinidad, where Mr Warner is a government minister. Both men deny any wrongdoing. In response to the dossier filed against him by American Fifa committee member Chuck Blazer, Mr Bin Hammam took the curious step of saying that Mr Blatter knew about the $40,000 payments and "had no issue with them".

The three accused will now appear before Fifa's ethics committee tomorrow.