FIFA's Blatter juggles sponsor pressure, voters

ZURICH Tue May 31, 2011 6:28pm EDT

1 of 4. FIFA President Sepp Blatter speaks during a news conference at the Club World Cup in Zayed Sports City in Abu Dhabi in this December 17, 2010 file photograph.

Credit: Reuters/Fahad Shadeed/Files

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ZURICH (Reuters) - Four of FIFA's six biggest sponsors raised pressure on Sepp Blatter to accept reform of soccer's scandal-torn governing body, as the president welcomed delegates due to re-elect him with jugglers and folk dancing.

While Blatter was opening the 61st FIFA Congress on Tuesday at a party in an ice-hockey arena, English soccer chiefs were seeking support for their proposal that Wednesday's election, with the incumbent as sole candidate, should be postponed.

FA President Prince William was "fully supportive" of the proposal and "considers the transparency of the international governing body to be integral to the good governance of the game," said a spokeswoman for St James's Palace.

Postponing the election appeared unlikely, though, with even Jack Warner, the suspended vice-president who said on Monday Blatter must be stopped, issuing an extraordinary letter urging Caribbean Football Union officials to vote for the incumbent.

Among the clearest calls for reform at the world governing body came from anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, who said FIFA should allow an external inquiry.

England's Football Association (FA) made a similar call but of more concern to FIFA may be the views of sponsors.

Visa Inc and Emirates Airlines were the latest of FIFA's most important sponsors, or Partners as the governing body calls them, to express disquiet at recent allegations of corruption.

NOT GOOD

"The current situation is clearly not good for the game and we ask that FIFA take all necessary steps to resolve the concerns that have been raised," Visa Europe said in a statement.

Emirates airline expressed its concern saying it was "disappointed with the issues that are currently surrounding the administration of the sport."

Earlier, Coca-Cola said the allegations were "distressing and bad for the sport." German sportswear maker Adidas also said the controversy had hurt soccer.

The other two members of the six-strong group of Partners, Sony and Hyundai-Kia, had made no comment on the recent claims of bribery in the presidential election campaign and in last year's World Cup vote.

The situation has been widely referred to as the worst crisis the game has faced but Blatter, the 75-year-old Swiss who has run soccer since 1998, has been downplaying the problem.

"Crisis? Where is the crisis?," Blatter asked reporters in a bad-tempered news conference on Monday.

Crisis or not, Franz Beckenbauer, the German former playing great who sits on FIFA's decision-making executive committee, said the current situation had spoiled the atmosphere.

"I feel very sad because the atmosphere before was great," Beckenbauer told Al Jazeera television. "I liked to be on the committee. It is the United Nations of football, a really great mixture, but now the atmosphere is very bad."

IOC COMPARISON

On Tuesday, Blatter told delegates they had a duty to protect the sport, while International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge recalled the Salt Lake City corruption crisis in his organization.

"Thirteen years ago we had to face the same ordeal regarding the Salt Lake City Games," Rogge said, apparently offering support to Blatter, who sits on the IOC as FIFA boss.

"The IOC however ultimately emerged a stronger organization and from within."

The only way Blatter will not be given a new term is if the Congress proposes and passes a motion to call off the election with the support of 75 percent of voting delegates.

That is unlikely to happen because while Blatter may not be able to connect with fans, he is highly skilled at talking to the only audience that really matters to his future -- the voting delegates at the Congress.

Since Blatter became president the governing body has grown rich thanks to its ability to generate billions of dollars from television rights to major tournaments as well as sponsorship deals with large corporations.

Not all of the sponsors are happy, but none has issued a public ultimatum demanding change.

The reason for all the concern from fans, officials, national associations, governments and now sponsors is clear.

BRIBERY ALLEGATIONS

In the space of a few days, Qatar has been tainted by suggestions it bought the 2022 World Cup; the head of Asian soccer, Mohamed bin Hammam, and CONCACAF chief Warner have been suspended over bribery allegations; and Bin Hammam withdrew from the presidential race, leaving Blatter to run unopposed.

FIFA's general secretary Jerome Valcke has since said he did not mean to suggest Qatar had used bribes to get the World Cup, Qatar has flatly denied any wrongdoing, Bin Hammam has launched an appeal against his provisional suspension and Warner called the ethics committee hearing a kangaroo court.

While FIFA's current "difficulties," as Blatter has called them, have moved from the back page of newspapers to the front, calls for reform from outside the sport have got louder.

"They should postpone the election and really clear up everything, take some time and then hold a new election," Sylvia Schenk, sports advisor for the Berlin-based watchdog Transparency International, told Reuters.

Australian Les Murray, who sits on the world soccer governing body's 13-man ethics committee, called for "complete structural" reform at FIFA, while Brazil's 1970 World Cup-winning captain Carlos Alberto Torres led calls for change from the sport's most successful country.

"There should be a general change, there are so many good people who could take office," Carlos Alberto told Reuters.

(Writing by Kevin Fylan, additional reporting by Karolina Tagaris in London)

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