ZURICH (Reuters) - Suspended FIFA President Sepp Blatter appeared before the ethics committee of world soccer’s governing body on Thursday in a case that could end with him banned from the sport for years.
FIFA is reeling from the worst corruption scandal in its more than 100-year history, with 41 people including national soccer bosses and entities charged by U.S. prosecutors and Blatter under criminal investigation in Switzerland.
Blatter, who is due to leave the post on Feb. 26 when his successor will be elected, arrived at and left in a chauffeur-driven vehicle after spending nearly eight hours inside FIFA headquarters in Zurich.
“President Blatter looks forward to a decision in his favor, because the evidence requires it,” Richard Cullen, one of Blatter’s attorneys, said in a statement after the hearing.
“The evidence demonstrates that President Blatter behaved properly and certainly did not violate FIFA’s Code of Ethics. This investigation should be closed and the suspension lifted.”
Blatter was suspended on Oct. 8 from all soccer-related activity for 90 days alongside European (UEFA) soccer chief Michel Platini pending a full investigation into their conduct.
The FIFA ethics inquiry began in the wake of the Swiss attorney general office’s decision to open criminal proceedings against Blatter over a $2 million payment to Platini in 2011. Blatter and Platini have both denied wrongdoing. Platini, who had intended to run for the FIFA presidency, was due to be heard by the committee on Friday but has refused to attend, saying the process against him is purely political. Earlier this week, Blatter wrote to FIFA’s 209 member state associations, on his own stationery, proclaiming his innocence. He reiterated that the payment, made when he was running for re-election of FIFA, was legitimate and resulted from a verbal contract for work Platini had done for FIFA years before.
Blatter received high-profile support from at least a few corners on the day of his hearing.
Russian President Vladimir Putin called him a “very respected person” who deserved to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, while he was named ‘Swiss of the Year’ by right-wing magazine Die Weltwoche in his home country.
“I can say without any false modesty: it’s a little bit my FIFA, which I built in all those years,” the 79-year-old told the magazine, later stressing his down-to-earth values. “I‘m a grounded person. I don’t have a Ferrari; I just co-own a pedalo on Lake Zurich.”
Separately on Thursday, a spokesman for the Swiss Justice Ministry said it had frozen millions of Swiss francs related to FIFA in response to a request from U.S. investigators.
The announcement came a day after officials said German prosecutors had asked Switzerland to help look into a suspicious payment linked to Germany’s hosting of the 2006 World Cup, including by sifting through bank data.
Writing by Brian Homewood; Editing by Tom Heneghan