The future of embattled FIFA president Sepp Blatter and his heir-apparent Michel Platini was in play Sunday, as they faced scrutiny by the soccer world body’s ethics committee that could end with suspension.
Committee spokesman Andreas Bantel told AFP he could not comment on individual cases, and refused to confirm reports that the committee had opened a probe against the two most powerful men in football.
But he emphasized that “if there is an initial suspicion, the Investigatory Chamber of the Ethics Committee initiates a formal proceedings.”
“These rules apply to all people in football regardless of their position or name,” he wrote in an email.
And there is plenty of suspicion to go around with the ethics committee due to meet in the coming days.
In a dramatic escalation of the corruption scandal engulfing world football since May, Swiss investigators swept into FIFA’s headquarters on Friday as they turned their attention to Blatter and Platini.
Authorities said a criminal investigation had been opened against Blatter on suspicion of criminal mismanagement, while UEFA chief Platini, who was favorite to win an election to find a successor to Blatter, had come under scrutiny over a murky multi-million-dollar payment.
Swiss prosecutors said Friday that Blatter was being investigated over the 2005 sale of World Cup television rights to the Caribbean Football Union, then run by his former ally Jack Warner, a deal which had been “unfavorable for FIFA”.
– Suspended within days? –
Blatter, who has denied any wrongdoing, was also suspected of making a “disloyal payment” of two million dollars to Platini in February 2011 allegedly made for work the Frenchman carried out for FIFA between 1999 and 2002.
The UEFA chief defended the payment as compensation for work he conducted under contract with FIFA, but did not explain why it arrived nearly a decade after he completed the work.
Friday’s stunning development came after months of probes following raids in Zurich which led to the indictment of more than a dozen top officials.
The FIFA ethics committee moved quicker back then, waiting barely 24 hours to suspend the officials snapped up in the May 27 dawn raid.
Media was awash Sunday with speculation over how long 79-year-old Blatter could hold on, and if Platini, his 60-year-old former ally, still had a chance to take his place.
“If Blatter does not step down himself, he will be suspended within days,” the SonntagsZeitung weekly wrote, citing an inside source.
The SonntagsBlick weekly meanwhile said Blatter could step down as early as Sunday.
A former FIFA insider, who requested anonymity, however stressed to AFP that a probe by the ethics committee did not necessarily mean Blatter would face suspension.
“It is not automatic, neither for him, nor Platini,” he said.
If Platini is suspended he could be barred from standing in the February 26 election to succeed Blatter.
If Blatter were to be suspended, meanwhile, he would likely be forced to step down before the February vote, bringing a rapid and ignomious end to his 17-year FIFA reign.
– Platini ‘calm and serene’ –
He was re-elected to a fifth term at FIFA’s congress in May in Zurich despite the arrest of seven officials but then announced on June 4 that he would stand down in February.
If Blatter leaves, Cameroonian FIFA vice president Issa Hayatou would temporarily take the reins.
“For now, Issa Hayatou is not undergoing any particular psychological preparation, but when the moment comes, he will be ready. That is for sure,” said a source close to the 69-year-old who has headed African football since 1998.
But pushing Hayatou to the top would not be unproblematic, since he too was several years ago accused of corruption and conflict of interest over a large payment from bankrupt marketing firm ISL.
A source close to both Blatter and Hayatou told AFP Sunday that the Cameroonian was currently in Paris, and planned to travel to Conakry Monday, indicating he does not expect to have to jump into the FIFA driver-seat immediately.
Blatter’s former personal public relations advisor, Klaus Stoehlker, meanwhile told Schweiz am Sonntag that the FIFA president was unlikely to make a hasty exit.
“A premature withdrawal is not up for discussion… The president remains president,” Stoehlker told the paper, insisting that the allegations against Blatter were “groundless.”
He suggested Blatter could even “stay on beyond February 26, so FIFA can function” if no appropriate successor was found.
Platini himself also appeared to be taking the commotion in his stride.
A source close to the UEFA chief told AFP Sunday he “is calm, he is serene, he has done nothing wrong. And he is available to be questioned by the ethics committee if it so wishes.”
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