The corruption scandal that has engulfed Fifa, world football's governing body, claimed its first victims yesterday. Mohamed Bin Hamman, the former presidential candidate, and Jack Warner, one of Fifa's long-term powerbrokers, were both suspended from any involvement with football following allegations of bribery.
On an extraordinary evening at Fifa's headquarters in Zurich, Petrus Damaseb, a Namibian high court judge, announced he was confident there was enough evidence to open an independent inquiry into claims that Mr Bin Hammam and Mr Warner offered gifts of $40,000 in $100 bills to members of the Caribbean Football Union (CFU) in return for supporting the Qatari multi-millionaire in his bid to oust Sepp Blatter as president of Fifa. It was, said Jerome Valcke, Fifa's general secretary, a watershed moment for the troubled body.
But it may yet get much worse for Fifa, its leaders and its already battered reputation. Last night Mr Warner, in the course of a rambling 1,000-word statement, began what is likely to be only the beginning of a slew of damaging counter-claims. He denies all the allegations and says he will mount a "vigorous" defence. He also said that the allegations were politically motivated, the inquiry itself was prejudiced against him and claimed that Mr Blatter had given a $1m "gift" to Concacaf, the Caribbean and North American federation that Mr Warner runs, to spend as they chose. "I intend to say a lot more shortly," said Mr Warner via the statement.
A full inquiry into the allegations made against Mr Bin Hammam, who also denies the charges, and Mr Warner, will now begin and is expected to reach its conclusions by the end of next month. Fifa will employ a non-European agency to investigate the case fully. Mr Damaseb stressed yesterday that Fifa do not yet regard Mr Bin Hammam and Mr Warner as guilty.
Mr Bin Hammam withdrew from the election contest in the early hours of yesterday morning before attending a hearing of the ethics committee along with Mr Warner, Chuck Blazer, the American who informed Fifa of the allegations, and Mr Blatter, who faced accusations from Mr Bin Hammam that he had known of the intention to give cash gifts and had failed to act on it.
Mr Blatter emerged as the clear winner yesterday and will be elected for fourth term as president when representatives of Fifa's 208 member associations gather in Zurich for Wednesday's congress. The associations could yet force a postponement of the vote, but it would need more than 150 of them, 75 per cent, to do so. Mr Blatter said: "I regret what has happened in the last few days and weeks. Fifa's image has suffered a great deal as a result, much to the disappointment of Fifa itself and all football fans."
Debbie Minguell and Jason Sylvester, two CFU officials, who are accused of actually dispensing envelopes of cash, were also suspended. Neither came to Zurich. The bribes were reported to have been handed out during a meeting in the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Port of Spain, Trinidad – the city from where Mr Warner has ruled Concacaf for more than 20 years.
Mr Warner has long been seen as a vital figure in Mr Blatter's long hold over Fifa. But the decision to suspend Mr Warner and clear Mr Blatter came down in part to whose word Mr Damaseb believed. He sided with the 75-year-old Mr Blatter.
Mr Blatter said that Mr Warner had told him Mr Bin Hammam was going to attend a meeting in Trinidad and give out "gifts" to voting members. Mr Warner denies the conversation with Mr Blatter took place. Mr Damaseb and the four other members of the committee, from Guam, Uruguay, Denmark and Australia, cleared Mr Blatter because "the committee took the view that the obligation to report did not arise because at that stage no wrongdoing had occurred".
In relation to the accusations against Mr Bin Hammam and Mr Warner, Mr Damaseb said: "We are satisfied that there is a case to be answered. Some individuals alleged that money was paid as an inducement to support Mr Bin Hammam's candidacy, facilitated by Jack Warner. The committee concluded that the implicated officials must be temporarily excluded from active participation in football activities."
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