FIFA opened its annual meeting of the world soccer body’s 209 members, known as the FIFA Congress, on Tuesday with its president Sepp Blatter in a combative mood a day after he said racism was behind corruption allegations engulfing Qatar's controversial winning bid to host the 2022 World Cup.
Blatter, though, endured a tense and frosty reception from Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) delegates, some whom criticized his comments on the Qatar bid and who stood alone from other confederations in not backing his intentions to run for another term.
On Monday, the 78-year-old Blatter, who is poised to announce his candidacy for a fifth term as FIFA president, launched a strong defense of his tenure during addresses to Asian and African officials. Speaking to the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) gathered in Sao Paulo, Blatter lashed out at his critics.
"They want to destroy, not the game, but they want to destroy the institution, because our institution is too strong," he said, without specifically defining who "they" were. Blatter also said FIFA was "so strong we are sure they'll not destroy it."
In separate comments to Confederation of African Football (CAF) delegates, Blatter said: "Once again there is a sort of storm against FIFA relating to the Qatar World Cup. Sadly there's a great deal of discrimination and racism, and this hurts me."
'Not good for FIFA'
Michael van Praag, the president of the Dutch football association, openly challenged Blatter after he addressed the European delegates at their national association meeting, he later told reporters.
"Mr Blatter, this is nothing personal but if you look at FIFA's reputation over the last seven or eight years, it is being linked to all kinds of corruption and all kinds of old boys' networks things," Van Praag said he had told Blatter in the meeting from which reporters were barred.
"You are now saying that Qatar was the wrong choice (for the 2022 World Cup), but you are not blaming yourself, you are blaming your executive committee,” Van Praag said. "Yesterday you said something about racism against Qatar and people are not taking you seriously any more. This is not good for FIFA and it is not good for the game.”
The volatile meeting recalled open conflict between Blatter and European soccer that flared around his original election in 1998, and again for his re-election in 2002 during a financial scandal after FIFA's then-World Cup marketing agency collapsed into bankruptcy and sparked a kickbacks investigation.
British newspaper The Sunday Times has published a series of articles over the last two weeks expanding on allegations that the former president of the Asian Confederation, Mohamed Bin Hammam, had used money from secret slush funds to help win votes and support for the Qatari World Cup bid.
Qatar has denied the allegations and said it was not connected to Bin Hammam. The FIFA executive committee awarded the World Cup Qatar in December 2010, beating rival bids from the United States, Australia, Japan and South Korea.
Stefan Szymanski, a professor of sports management at the University of Michigan and co-author of the book "Soccernomics," said he believes the accusations are driven more by countries bitter that they were passed over as the 2022 World Cup host, rather than racism.
“There’s an element of sour grapes: ‘We lost therefore, we’re not happy,’” Szymanski said.
Ultimately, Szymanski said, the real threat is if allegations of corruption continue.
"If Blatter succeeds in persuading people that this is about racism, then ultimately a split in FIFA is possible," he said. "That could place in jeopardy participation in future World Cups."
The Sunday Times has also made new allegations that Bin Hammam specifically targeted African soccer officials and Issa Hayatou, the president of the African Confederation, to help create a groundswell of opinion in favor of the Qatari bid.
Szymanski said those allegations could create even greater turmoil within FIFA.
“Potentially people in those federations are facing sanctions and they may actually decide they wish to mount some kind of resistance against this," Szymanski said, adding “you can’t have corruption with people handing out bribes without people receiving bribes.”
Hayatou, for his part, has called the corruption allegations by The Sunday Times newspaper "fanciful" and "ridiculous."
The decision to award Qatar the 2022 World Cup came under scrutiny almost immediately due to the blazing weather in the Gulf country during the summer months when the tournament is traditionally played. The country has also come under international pressure to address working conditions and labor rights amid reports that hundreds of immigrant employees had died on construction projects.
Sponsors paying attention
In the wake of the problems facing FIFA, five of FIFA's six major sponsors have expressed their displeasure over the situation.
Sportswear maker Adidas, which has been associated with FIFA since the 1950s, said in a statement on Sunday: "The negative tenor of the public debate around FIFA at the moment is neither good for football nor for FIFA and its partners."
Szymanski said the fact that sponsors are now getting involved could be a worrying development for Blatter and for Qatar as host country.
"Blatter’s power base is all about the money that comes in from sponsorship being then redistributed to national federations and that’s how he gains his support," he said. "If that money dries up, he will lose his support.
“If Blatter goes, the way is open to a serious reexamination of the Qatar bid and a possible rebidding."
Monday's developments coincided with Michael Garcia, the head of FIFA's investigatory chamber of their Ethics Committee, concluding his report on alleged corruption surrounding FIFA officials, which has taken him two years to complete. The developments also come just days before the 2014 Brazil World Cup, which begins on Thursday.
Garcia will submit the report to German judge Hans-Joachim Eckert, the head of the Ethics Committee's adjudicatory chamber, in around six weeks. If he finds corruption, soccer officials say Qatar could be stripped of the Cup.
Philip J. Victor contributed to this report, with wire services