ZURICH — Having come through another FIFA election largely unscathed, Sepp Blatter was in a typically defiant mood Saturday when addressing the challenges that still lie ahead.
The 79-year-old FIFA president dismissed suggestions that a United States government investigation of corruption in football could lead to his door. Several senior FIFA officials have been arrested already, but Blatter shrugged off the notion that he could be next.
“Arrested for what? Next question,” Blatter said curtly when meeting international media for the first time since American and Swiss federal cases rocked FIFA’s home city on Wednesday.
“I forgive but I don’t forget,” Blatter also said at FIFA headquarters, referring to a European-led attempt to oust him after 17 years in office.
A busy first day of his new four-year presidential term saw the leader of the world’s most popular sport scold critics and take acclaim from allies.
Blatter criticized U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and received a congratulatory telegram from Vladimir Putin, president of 2018 World Cup host Russia.
Gone was the tension which put a tremor in his voice after Swiss police raided FIFA’s favorite luxury hotel in Zurich early Wednesday.
Blatter insisted he had nothing to fear from the U.S. federal case which alleged a $150 million bribe scheme linked to broadcast rights for tournaments in North and South America. Two FIFA vice presidents were among seven men arrested.
“I do not see how FIFA could be directly affected by this,” Blatter said.
He was equally adamant when responding to questions about whether the probe can’t still directly affect him.
Was he the “high-ranking FIFA official” mentioned in the Department of Justice indictment who wired $10 million to corrupt North American officials? The apparent bribes were paid from a FIFA account in exchange for voting for South Africa as the 2010 World Cup host.
“Definitely that is not me,” Blatter said. “I have no $10 million.”
It was clear that, after winning a closer vote than he would have liked Friday, Blatter wanted to come out fighting – first criticizing Lynch in an interview with his local Swiss broadcaster.
Lynch said Wednesday that FIFA and marketing officials – 14 indicted and four who made guilty pleas – had “corrupted the business of worldwide soccer to serve their interests and to enrich themselves.”
“I was shocked by what she said,” Blatter told French-language broadcaster RTS. “As a president I would never make a statement about another organization without knowing.”
Blatter suggested the U.S. Department of Justice went too far on FIFA’s turf.
“Listen, with all the respect to the judicial system of the U.S. with a new minister of justice,” Blatter said, “the Americans, if they have a financial crime that regards American citizens then they must arrest these people there and not in Zurich when we have a congress.”
Those comments set the tone for a punchy lunchtime news conference.
“I have especially no concerns about my person,” he said about the investigation, which U.S. federal agencies claim is just starting.
The seven football officials detained are resisting extradition and face 20 years in prison. Any questioning and plea bargaining could take American authorities deeper into the heart of FIFA.
Those detained include FIFA vice president Jeffrey Webb, a Cayman Islands banker with homes in Georgia. Webb was a member of FIFA’s audit panel more than a decade ago when FIFA was in severe financial crisis.
Still, FIFA member federations ignored the global furor Friday to vote Blatter a 133-73 victory against challenger Prince Ali bin al-Hussein.
Blatter said the storm of protest “hasn’t reached hurricane strength,” but acknowledged FIFA officials would make “personal visits” to World Cup sponsors unsettled by negative publicity.
Emboldened by his win, Blatter suggested two American motives for attacking him: Being a political ally of the “Hashemite kingdom,” meaning the Jordanian prince’s home country, and as a bad loser in the 2022 World Cup hosting votes.
A separate Swiss federal probe is also under way into possible financial corruption during the 2018-2022 bid contests, and evidence was seized at FIFA on Wednesday. Russian and Qatari bid officials have always denied wrongdoing.
Blatter’s comments echo his close ally Putin. The Russian president said the U.S. was meddling in FIFA’s affairs to influence the election and provoke his country being stripped of its World Cup.
Support for Blatter from Russia and Spain complicates a deep rift between FIFA and European body UEFA.
UEFA President Michel Platini, who urged Blatter to resign, has called his member federations to discuss tactics in Berlin ahead of the Champions League final next Saturday.
“There should be some kind of reaction,” said Dutch federation president Michael van Praag, who was a candidate against Blatter until switching support to Prince Ali.
There was no immediate retribution toward Europe, though, as Blatter’s executive committee voted Saturday to retain the format for World Cup qualifying spots. That ensures there will still be 13 European countries, plus host Russia, at the 32-team tournament.
The executive committee also cleared the way for European countries to bid for the 2026 World Cup, despite previous comments by Blatter that it would be too soon after Russia.
The United States is a probable bidder for 2026 amid obvious conflicts with FIFA.
“This will have no impact” on the chances of an American bid winning, Blatter insisted.
The Associated Press
Didier Morais on FIFA scandal
For more on the FIFA scandal, Didier Morais joins us from New York. He’s a sports reporter, and provides analysis on some of the biggest stories in the world of sports