ZURICH (Reuters) - FIFA President Sepp Blatter came out fighting on Saturday as he began his fifth term in charge of soccer’s governing body, implying that the United States timed the announcement of a major corruption probe to try to scupper his re-election bid.
The 79-year-old Swiss comfortably won Friday’s vote at a FIFA congress in Zurich, having secured the support of blocks of votes from Asia and Africa, which outweighed dissenters including Europe’s powerful soccer body UEFA.
He now faces the daunting task of restoring public faith in an organization tainted by allegations of rampant graft and deeply divided over his leadership. Swiss police arrested seven leading soccer officials, including FIFA vice-president Jeffrey Webb, in a dawn swoop on a Zurich hotel on Wednesday.
One of Blatter’s strongest critics, English Football Association Chairman Greg Dyke, predicted further scandals before the end of his new four-year term.
“I think he (Blatter) will be then forced to resign,” he told reporters.
But Blatter, who has run FIFA for nearly 20 years during which it has regularly been subject to suspicions of sleaze and corruption, went on the offensive, criticizing U.S. authorities for how they had handled their investigation.
“No one is going to take it off me that it was a simple coincidence (that) this American attack (happened) two days before the elections of FIFA,” Blatter told the Swiss RTS television channel late on Friday.
“Why didn’t they (the police) do this in March when we had the same meeting? At that time, we had less journalists.”
Asked about Blatter’s remarks, a U.S. Department of Justice official said “the 47-count indictment speaks for itself, beyond which we will have no further comment at this time.” The federal indictment unsealed on Wednesday charged a total of nine soccer officials and five sports marketing executives with corruption.
The indictment, and Wednesday’s arrests, were connected to a bribery scandal being investigated by U.S., Swiss and other law enforcement agencies that has plunged FIFA into the worst crisis in its 111-year history.
The Justice Department official, who asked not to be named, noted U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch was asked at a news conference this week about the timing of the arrests and said, “we basically resolve cases when the evidence comes together, when they’re ready for a resolution.”
Blatter also criticized UEFA, whose president, Michel Platini, had called for his resignation, saying it was not setting a good example to other soccer federations.
He told reporters on Saturday that UEFA had opposed a proposal to set up an independent committee to carry out integrity checks on executive committee members before they could take office.
“This was rejected by UEFA so it couldn’t go through,” he said. “Even now, the big UEFA doesn’t have an independent ethics committee, (but) they should be an example for the other confederations... It’s not acceptable.”
He did, however, call for the two groups to work together, particularly to protect the World Cup.
“They need FIFA and FIFA needs UEFA,” Blatter said.
Britain’s Prince William, who is president of the English FA, called on FIFA to reform and show “it can represent the interests of fair play” in a speech at the FA Cup final in London on Saturday.
The prince also backed the decision by former Manchester United chief executive and newly elected FIFA vice-president David Gill to quit the position almost immediately in protest at Blatter’s re-appointment.
Blatter played down the impact of the scandal on one of the world’s most powerful sports bodies, which takes in billions of dollars in revenue from TV marketing rights and sponsorships.
“These crimes which have been committed are related to North and South America and a marketing company has been mentioned, so I do not see how (FIFA) could be directly affected by this.”
“We have always tried, in my tenure of office, to eliminate all these elements or individuals.”
Blatter has not been implicated in any wrongdoing, but his critics have argued it is time for him to step down.
His supporters welcomed the outcome of a vote that saw him fend off a sole challenger, 39-year-old Prince Ali bin Al Hussein of Jordan.
That support reflects Blatter’s success in expanding FIFA’s membership away from soccer’s heartlands and in exploiting resentment in Africa and Asia over the perceived arrogance of the game’s powerhouse nations in Europe and South America.
Despite Blatter’s re-election, the scandal surrounding the investigations into corruption looks set to rumble on.
Platini has raised the possibility, albeit slim, of Europe boycotting the World Cup tournament, soccer’s showcase played every four years. There has also been talk of UEFA breaking away from FIFA, although that is also seen as unlikely.
Blatter’s future could yet depend on the reaction of FIFA’s major sponsors and stakeholders such as Coca-Cola and McDonald‘s, who have been dismayed by the arrests and U.S. prosecutors announcing indictments of officials and companies.
A senior U.S. Internal Revenue Service official said on Friday he thought there would be further indictments, the New York Times reported, although he declined to identify the remaining targets of the investigation.
An IRS spokesman confirmed that Richard Weber, chief of the IRS unit in charge of criminal investigations, made the remarks and said “the case is open and ongoing.”
Separately, Swiss prosecutors are investigating the award of the World Cup finals to Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022, decisions that have deepened rifts within FIFA.
The choice of Qatar, a small desert state where summer daytime temperatures rarely fall below 40 degrees Celsius, was especially contentious and went against the advice of FIFA’s own technical committee.
Russia and Qatar deny wrongdoing in their bids to host the prestigious tournament, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused the United States of meddling in an effort to force Blatter out.
Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert in Washington; Writing by Mike Collett-White and Frances Kerry; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Crispian Balmer and David Gregorio