ZURICH – The worst corruption crisis in soccer history stems from the governing body’s decision to award Russia and Qatar the next two World Cup tournaments, FIFA President Sepp Blatter said Friday.
Blatter spoke at the FIFA congress hours before the presidential election in which he is a seeking a fifth term. He has refused calls to resign after FIFA was targeted by U.S. and Swiss authorities in separate corruption investigations.
In 2010, Russia was chosen to host the 2018 World Cup and Qatar was awarded the 2022 tournament amid widespread allegations of wrongdoing.
“If two other countries had emerged from the envelope, I think we would not have these problems today,” Blatter said. “But we can’t go back in time. We are not prophets. We can’t say what would have happened.”
The United States was one of the losing bidders for the 2022 World Cup. On Wednesday, U.S. authorities indicted 14 people on bribery, racketeering, fraud and money-laundering charges going back to the 1990s.
Seven of the officials – including two serving FIFA vice presidents – were arrested in Zurich on Wednesday ahead of the congress.
“I am not going to use the word coincidence but I do have a small question mark,” Blatter said about the timing of the raid.
When the congress broke for a lunch a few hours later, a bomb threat was made at the venue hosting the meetings, according to Swiss police.
“An anonymous threat against the FIFA congress was received,” FIFA secretary-general Jerome Valcke said when the proceedings resumed.
The two criminal investigations have cast a new shadow on Blatter’s 17-year reign as president of FIFA. The 209 FIFA member nations will decide later Friday whether to stick with the 79-year-old Blatter or vote for Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan.
Amid the dramatic build up to the election, UEFA president Michel Platini appealed to Blatter to immediately step down – calls the president has rejected.
“I am willing to accept the president of FIFA is responsible for everything but I would at least like to share that responsibility with everyone,” Blatter said in a presidential address on Friday morning. “We cannot constantly supervise everyone in football … you cannot ask everyone to behave ethically.”
Blatter also cautioned that “it will take some time” to rebuild FIFA’s reputation.
“The events of Wednesday have unleashed a storm and there was even questioned whether this congress would be organized or change the agenda,” Blatter said. “Today I am appealing to unity and team spirit so we can move forward together. That may not always be easy but it is for this reason that we are here together today.”
A two-thirds majority would be enough for Blatter or Prince Ali to win the secret presidential vote, or a simple majority in a second round of voting. Just forcing the ballot to a second round could represent a victory of sorts for Blatter’s critics, denying the incumbent president an emphatic mandate in his next term.
Blatter’s opening address to the congress was briefly disrupted by a pro-Palestinian activist, who held up a red card and shouted “Red card to racism.” The protest was to draw attention to a campaign that aims to stop Palestinian players from being detained by Israeli security forces.
After calling for security, Blatter announced: “I would ask you to please check the access points of this room.”