Sepp Blatter, the embattled Fifa president, yesterday issued a full public apology for suggesting incidents of racist abuse on the football pitch could be settled with a handshake, but his move failed to stem the rising tide of condemnation from the game’s managers, players and power-brokers. The 75 year-old, though, remains adamant he will not resign his post.
Typically defiant, after 48 hours in which he has faced a growing clamour for his departure from the Prime Minister David Cameron, David Beckham, Rio Ferdinand and countless others, Blatter allowed Tokyo Sexwale – a South African government minister and member of Fifa's executive committee who featured in a photograph disseminated by the game's governing body in the aftermath of Blatter's comments – to read out an apology during a press conference in Johannesburg before reiterating his stance in an interview with the BBC.
"My personal position and Fifa's stance against racism and any form of discrimination is very clear," he said. "It is part of my core values to respect all nations and all cultures. I see football as a game to unite people. I am sorry. I regret that my statements earlier this week have resulted in this unfortunate situation and have taken this dimension. I am committed to the fight against racism. I want to make clear that I will not stop until we have stamped racism out of football.
"It hurts and I am still hurting because I could not envisage such a reaction. When you have done something which was absolutely not totally correct, I can only say I am sorry for all those people affected by my declarations. [I was] pushed into a corner with very unfortunate words and this I deeply, deeply regret. I can ensure my fight against racism and discrimination will go on. It will never stop."
Insisting his original comments had not been "clear" – "I was talking about all foul language, though that is a detail now" – Blatter completed a full volte-face by suggesting, less than 24 hours after Liverpool's Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez was charged by the FA with racially abusing Manchester United's Patrice Evra, that any player found guilty of such an offence should be thrown out of the game altogether.
"Zero tolerance, out of the game, finished," said the Fifa president, before insisting that he could not so much as contemplate resigning: "I cannot resign. Why should I? When you are faced with a problem you have to face the problem. To leave would be totally unfair and not compatible with my fighting spirit, my character, my energy. It was a serious incident, and one I deeply, deeply regret, but we have to go on and I have to go on."
Blatter is likely to be allowed to do so thanks to the apparent apathy of Fifa's sponsors – only one of whom, Emirates, has so much as intimated that they are monitoring the affair with the possibility of reviewing their deal – and its member states. Though the storm continues to rage in Britain, with almost every Premier League manager invited to offer their thoughts yesterday, elsewhere in the world the affair has been largely ignored.
Indeed, the Portuguese legend Eusebio seemed to back Blatter's initial suggestion by intimating that Braga's black winger Alan had been "stupid" to make public the allegation he had been racially abused by Benfica's Javi Garcia during a recent league game. "It cannot be proved," said the former Benfica striker. "The things I heard to try and annoy me happened almost every game, but I did not take any notice."
David Beckham, on the other hand, dismissed the notion racist abuse should be ignored or tolerated by its victims, with the former England captain branding Blatter's initial comments "appalling". He added: "It cannot be swept under the carpet, it cannot be sorted out with a handshake. That is not how racism should be treated."
Blatter has also been subjected to fierce criticism from both the FA and Fifpro, the international players' union. "Mr Blatter has made it clear he will not resign but his apology today was necessary," said David Bernstein, the FA's chairman. "His initial comments were wrong and irresponsible. A handshake at the end of the game does not draw a line under racial abuse."
A statement released by Fifpro read: "We were surprised to learn of the statements made by Mr Blatter. [These] statements are rather clumsy. Racism remains a huge problem in football, on the pitch and in the stadiums. Fifpro is well aware of this, and so is Mr Blatter. In the past, we have worked successfully with Fifa in the fight against racism, but since the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Fifa has hardly made itself heard, which is rather sad."
Blatter can, at least, count on the support of his friend Sexwale. "It takes a big man to say he is sorry," said the former anti-Apartheid activist.
"I think for him to bend his knee like this shows the way. I hope it will help us send the message of anti-racism worldwide."
'Wrong and misplaced' - Blatter reaction
"For the head of Fifa to come out and totally miss the point is pretty upsetting for a lot of people."
"You are not always politically correct on the pitch. The question [is]: do you punish it or not? And if you want to get it out you have to punish it."
"[Racism] can't be swept under the carpet, it can't be sorted out with a handshake. That's not the way of the world and that's not how racism should be treated."
"Racism does happen on the field of play and the shaking of a hand just doesn't put it right. But who is going to sack him? I don't see that anybody is going to sack him."
"I don't think those comments have helped. They were completely wrong and misplaced, especially when we have one or two things going on in this country."
"It's disappointing. Sepp Blatter, as always, seems to put his foot in it for some reason."
"It's good that person is able to come out and retract the words. There are things that should have been avoided in the first place. But at least there is humility."
Fine for abuse of England players
The Bulgarian Football Union was yesterday fined the pathetic sum of €40,000 (£34,200) by Uefa for racist abuse by their supporters during a Euro 2012 qualifier against England in September. Uefa said home fans had directed racist chants at England players during in Sofia. Although the fine is more than double that imposed on the Croatian FA for racist chants by their fans in a game against England in 2008 it is hardly hard-hitting.