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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

FIFA clears Blatter, suspends Asia chief


ZURICH — FIFA suspended senior executives Mohamed bin Hammam and Jack Warner over bribery allegations Sunday, while exonerating President Sepp Blatter in the gravest corruption crisis facing soccer's world governing body.

Blatter now is in line to be re-elected unopposed to a fourth term Wednesday after his only challenger, bin Hammam, withdrew his candidacy just hours before being provisionally excluded from all soccer activities by FIFA's ethics committee.

The ethics panel said there was sufficient evidence to further investigate allegations that bin Hammam and Warner, the CONCACAF President, offered $40,000 bribes to delegates at a Caribbean soccer association meeting on May 10-11 in Trinidad.

The payments were allegedly made to secure votes for bin Hammam, a Qatari who heads Asia's soccer confederation, in his campaign to unseat Blatter. The evidence was compiled by American executive committee member Chuck Blazer.

FIFA said bin Hammam and Warner, a FIFA vice president from Trinidad, will now face a full FIFA inquiry. If found guilty, they could be expelled from FIFA and banned for life from all soccer activity.

"We are satisfied that there is a case to be answered," Petrus Damaseb, deputy chairman of the ethics committee, said at a news conference.

Bin Hammam told reporters the suspension is "unfortunate but this is where we are — this is FIFA."

"I should have been given the benefit of doubt, but instead, I have been banned from all football activities," he later wrote on his official website.

Bin Hammam also criticized FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke for introducing new evidence — an email from Puerto Rican officials admitting they received $40,000 and had now returned it — at the post-hearing news conference.

Two officials from the Caribbean Football Union, Debbie Minguell and Jason Sylvester, were also suspended over the bribery allegations.

With FIFA's reputation severely tarnished by repeated allegations of vote-buying and financial wrongdoing, Blatter responded Sunday by saying he regrets "what has happened in the last few days and weeks."

"FIFA's image has suffered a great deal as a result, much to the disappointment of FIFA itself and all football fans," the Swiss official said.

Bin Hammam, who denied any wrongdoing, had asked the ethics panel to investigate Blatter on grounds that he knew of alleged bribe attempts and did nothing about it.

But Damaseb said the five-man panel received "lots of confirmation from every individual conceivable" that there was no evidence to take action against Blatter, who has been in office since 1998.

"Is there a reason I should not believe him?" Damaseb, a Namibian judge, told reporters. "You can disagree with the decision I have taken. I can just give you the reasoning behind our decision."

FIFA stressed that the election will go ahead as scheduled on Wednesday during the congress of 208 national members.

"It's sad — definitely there is a need for change," Valcke said. "FIFA must make the necessary changes so that the institution has systems in place to avoid that something like this happens again."

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