ZURICH (Reuters) - World soccer chief Sepp Blatter and European boss Michel Platini were suspended on Thursday, engulfed by a deepening corruption scandal as their sport faces criminal investigations in Switzerland and the United States.
Blatter, the Swiss who has been president of world governing body FIFA since 1998, was already due to stand down after an election to replace him in February.
Platini, head of European body UEFA, was a frontrunner to replace him. His shrinking election hopes now depend on whether he can overturn the 90-day ban imposed by FIFA’s Ethics Committee through an appeal process.
Despite their denials of wrongdoing, both men have gradually been submerged by the scandal that has rocked the world’s most popular sport, beginning with dawn raids and a series of arrests at a Swiss luxury hotel in May.
“During this time, the above individuals are banned from all football activities on a national and international level,” the ethics committee said.
FIFA said in a statement: “Joseph S. Blatter, for the duration of the 90-day ban, is not allowed to represent FIFA in any capacity, act on the organization’s behalf or communicate to media or other stakeholders as a FIFA representative.”
It said his acting replacement was Issa Hayatou of Cameroon, the head of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and FIFA’s most senior vice president.
In 2011, Hayatou, 69, was reprimanded by the International Olympics Committee’s ethics commission after he confirmed to them that he was paid by FIFA’s former marketing agency International Sport and Leisure in 1995.
The IOC said such an action constituted a conflict of interest. Hayatou denied any personal gain or wrongdoing.
In a statement on Thursday, the Cameroonian said he would not be a candidate for FIFA president in February and had taken on the role “only on an interim basis”.
However, UEFA took a different and defiant stance, saying they supported Platini, still referring to him as the organization’s president and saying they would not replace him while he appeals.
“The UEFA Executive Committee expressed its full confidence in UEFA President Michel Platini and stands fully behind him,” they said in a statement.
Platini issued a personal statement, through UEFA’s media department, saying he was motivated by a “profound feeling of staunch defiance”.
“I have received numerous messages of support today from UEFA’s member associations and the other confederations encouraging me to continue my work serving football’s interests. Nothing will make me give up on that commitment,” he said.
UEFA, whose 54 member associations will gather in Nyon next Thursday, later issued a second statement acknowledging that Platini was suspended and that he “would not perform his official duties for the time being” and that he had canceled several official trips.
Platini said he had submitted his nomination papers for the election before being suspended.
The soccer federation of Germany, winner of last year’s World Cup, urged Blatter to resign and called for an emergency meeting of FIFA’s executive committee. The Asian Football Confederation supported the call for a swift meeting of FIFA’s ruling body.
”The future can only be constructed without the current president, without Sepp Blatter,“ German soccer chief Wolfgang Niersbach said. ”That would be a sign of a new start and would be a mark for everyone that cleanliness was returning to football.”
If Platini is not able to overturn his ban and join the election race, it would leave Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan as the clear favorite, unless other candidates now emerge to take advantage of the Frenchman’s troubles.
South African Tokyo Sexwale, who was imprisoned with Nelson Mandela during the apartheid era and later became a politician and businessman, has said he is considering running.
Last week two sources told Reuters that Bahraini Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, president of the Asian Football Confederation, would consider standing if Platini was ruled out.
The president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, said FIFA should consider an external candidate to succeed Blatter.
“They must do two things immediately: they must accelerate and deepen the reform process in order to comply with accountability, transparency and all the principles of good governance,” he said in his strongest statement yet on the crisis.
“They should also be open for a credible external presidential candidate of high integrity, to accomplish the necessary reforms and bring back stability and credibility to FIFA,” he added.
In further disciplinary moves, FIFA also handed out a 90-day suspension to Secretary General Jerome Valcke, who had already been sent on leave after being accused of being part of a scheme to sell 2014 World Cup tickets at a marked-up price. He denies any wrongdoing.
South Korea’s former FIFA Vice-President Chung Mong-joon was banned from the game for six years, a decision which will almost certainly end his already slim electoral hopes.
Swiss and U.S. authorities are both investigating corruption in world soccer, in long-running probes that have so far led to the indictment of 14 soccer officials and sports marketing executives. Among other things, they are examining the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar respectively.
All those banned on Thursday can turn to FIFA’s Appeals Committee to try to overturn the bans, but would remain suspended throughout any appeals process.
Blatter’s lawyers said he was disappointed he had been suspended without having the chance to be heard. They added he was looking forward to presenting evidence that would prove he did not engage in any misconduct.
The statement from the Ethics Committee did not give out details of any offense committed by Blatter and Platini.
While it is not allowed to discuss any probes, the investigation is almost certainly looking into a payment of 2 million Swiss francs ($2.06 million) from FIFA to Platini in 2011, nine years after he had completed a spell working for Blatter as an adviser.
The Swiss Attorney General said on Sept. 25 it had opened a criminal investigation into Blatter concerning that matter and a Caribbean television rights deal. Platini is regarded as somewhere “between a witness and an accused person” in the payment case.
Blatter has worked for FIFA for 40 years, starting as a technical director before becoming secretary general under former president Joao Havelange in 1981.
The 79-year-old told a German magazine this week that the Swiss criminal investigation against him was “not correct”.
($1 = 0.9708 Swiss francs)
Reporting by Joshua Franklin and Simon Evans; Editing by Mark Trevelyan