Sepp Blatter, the embattled leader of world soccer, announced Tuesday he will resign as president of FIFA amid a major corruption scandal and reports that he is a focus of the federal investigation.
The 79-year-old Swiss had just been reelected to an unprecedented fifth term Friday, two days after seven FIFA officials were arrested in Zurich, Switzerland, as part of the U.S. Justice Department-led investigation into a $150 million bribery scheme over the past two decades.
Since the news broke, Blatter had tried to distance himself from the probe, which led to the indictment of 14 people thus far. But reports Tuesday indicate the money trail is getting closer to Blatter.
The New York Times reported that federal authorities believe Blatter’s right-hand man, FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke, was at the center of a $10 million money transfer in 2008 that could be crucial in the bribery case.
“Although the members of FIFA gave me a new mandate, this mandate does not seem to be supported by everyone in the world,” Blatter said at a hastily-called news conference in Zurich. “This is why I will call an extraordinary congress to be held as soon as possible for a new president elected to follow me as new president.”
FIFA rules say a meeting of that magnitude requires four months of planning, so a new president probably will not be elected until winter. Blatter remains in office until then, and vowed to lead a clean-up of the 209-nation organization.
“FIFA needs a profound overhaul,” Blatter said. “The Executive Committee includes representatives of confederations over whom we have no control, but for whose actions FIFA is held responsible. We need deep-rooted structural change.”
Meanwhile, the focus of the investigation seems to be turning toward Blatter’s inner circle. Authorities believe Valcke was involved in a $10 million payment to former FIFA vice president Jack Warner of Trinidad and Tobago in exchange for votes on South Africa’s bid for the 2010 World Cup.
The money was taken out of the operating budget for the 2010 World Cup and transferred by FIFA to an account controlled by Warner, supposedly to fund a program called the “Diaspora Legacy Programme” for Africans living in the Caribbean. Details of the $10 million transfer were written in a letter sent from the South African Football Association to Valcke in 2008. The letter was published Tuesday by the Press Association in Britain.
In addition to the U.S. probe, a separate investigation by Swiss authorities was launched into possible impropriety in the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar, respectively.
News of the scandal broke last Wednesday, as 14 people were indicted — the seven FIFA officials and seven others, including Miami resident Aaron Davidson, 44, an attorney and president of Traffic USA, a branch of Brazilian sports marketing firm Traffic.
Blatter’s resignation was welcome news to U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati: “The announcement [Tuesday] by President Blatter represents an exceptional and immediate opportunity for positive change within FIFA. I commend him for making a decision that puts FIFA and the sport we love above all other interests. This is the first of many steps towards real and meaningful reform within FIFA. [Tuesday] is an occasion for optimism and belief for everyone who shares a passion for our game.”
Tommy Mulroy, a longtime Miami soccer promoter who worked for Traffic and was president of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, was overjoyed with the news.
“Wow! I am super happy,” Mulroy said. “There is a soccer god. I am actually teary-eyed. This is the first real move in the right direction for our sport and the ethics of it. Rome is burning, and the flames must be catching Blatter’s tail. I think the guys who know where the bodies are buried know who else knows. It’s like the mafia, each guy is trying to save himself.
“I honestly thought the United States and Europe would have to break away from FIFA to do things the right way, but this news gives me hope.”