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Blatter Faces Contentious Election

Soccer: Even if FIFA chief is retained, as expected, legal troubles could cloud his future.

May 28, 2002|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEOUL — After more than six months of mudslinging in the finest of political traditions, representatives of FIFA's 204 member nations will gather here Wednesday to elect a leader.

The choice before them is simple: They can retain the incumbent, Joseph "Sepp" Blatter of Switzerland, as president of international soccer's governing body, or they can replace him with challenger Issa Hayatou of Cameroon.

By Monday, it appeared that Blatter would win comfortably--or perhaps uncomfortably would be more to the point.

That's because Blatter knows that even if he gets a majority of the votes, he still faces potentially serious legal action in Switzerland, where accusations of corruption and misuse of funds could, if proven, lead to him being ousted from office during his second four-year term.

The parallels to Watergate were too much for the European press to resist, and Blattergate entered the lexicon. Even Lennart Johansson of Sweden, the 72-year-old president of UEFA, European soccer's ruling body, was not immune.

"There are similarities," he said May 17, "because after Watergate, [former President] Nixon was still voted in as president before people knew all the facts. But the allegations never went away and he eventually had to go."

Johansson was defeated, 111-80, by Blatter in the 1998 FIFA presidential election in Paris, an election that published reports claim was tainted by bribery on the part of Blatter supporters.

Blatter, meanwhile, remains unperturbed.

"Let us play football now and then let's see what will happen with the case which has been brought to a court in Zurich," he said Sunday.

Blatter, despite being prone to banal remarks that reflect his background in public relations, has a shrewdness and political savvy acquired during 17 years of service as FIFA secretary general under former president Joao Havelange of Brazil. His critics have found it all but impossible to pin him down.

The latest to try has been Michel Zen-Ruffinen, who replaced Blatter as secretary general and who on May 3 delivered an explosive 21-page report (backed by 300 pages of documentation) to FIFA's Executive Committee alleging that Blatter could have violated Swiss law in his handling of FIFA finances.

Stunned by the revelations, 11 members of the 24-member Executive Committee, including Johansson and Hayatou, asked Blatter to resign. He refused. As a result, the 11 initiated legal action by filing papers with Swiss prosecutors in Zurich.

At the heart of the squabble are FIFA's finances, which have been in alleged disarray since the bankruptcy of FIFA's marketing partner, ISL-ISMM, in May 2001 with debts of anywhere between $300 million and $1.2 billion.

They were exacerbated this April by the collapse of KirchMedia, the German company that held the television rights to the 2002 and 2006 World Cup tournaments, the "cash cow" events that essentially bankroll FIFA operations.

Blatter, 66, has long insisted that the finances are in order and that safeguards are in place to protect FIFA. But, with a majority of supporters on the FIFA Finance Committee, he has been able to resist attempts to open the books for examination. He has even consistently refused to reveal his own salary.

That has fueled increasing suspicion that all is not well.

In October, Johansson demanded an internal audit of FIFA's finances, but nothing happened. In December, 11 or the 24 members of the Executive Committee demanded the same thing, but Blatter said that 11 was not a majority and ignored the demand.

After newspaper reports in Europe cast serious doubts about the financial health of world soccer's ruling body and revisited the whole 1998 bribery issue, the Executive Committee in March overrode Blatter and established an Internal Audit Committee (IAC).

One month later, Blatter suspended the IAC from proceeding, claiming breaches of confidentiality. That led to the May 3 emergency meeting of the Executive Committee at which Zen-Ruffinen delivered his bombshell about "financial irregularities" within FIFA.

Blatter denied any such irregularities, calling them "bizarre and unfounded" and immediately cut Zen-Ruffinen off from receiving any further financial information. He ordered Urs Linzi, FIFA's financial director, to report instead to Julio Grondona of Argentina, a FIFA vice president and key Blatter ally.

"The secretary general would do better to work more than play CIA and FBI," Blatter told the Swiss newspaper SonntagsZeitung.

Throughout the imbroglio, it has been a case of mudslinging on one side and stonewalling on the other, with the truth falling somewhere in between. Curiously, Hayatou, president of the Confederation of African Football (CAF), has remained largely above the fray.

His strongest public statement came in response to Blatter's claim that his critics were merely out to smear him in an election year.

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