FIFA’s embattled president Sepp Blatter on Tuesday said he would resign as chief of soccer’s governing body, a stunning turn of events days after the Swiss national was elected to a fifth term amid a damaging corruption scandal.
In a press conference at FIFA’s headquarters in Zurich, Mr. Blatter admitted no wrongdoing himself but said it had become clear that he no longer had the widespread support of the soccer world after 17 years at the helm.
“FIFA needs a profound overhaul. While I have a mandate from the membership of FIFA, I do not feel that I have a mandate from the entire world of football – the fans, the players, the clubs, the people who live, breathe and love football as much as we all do at FIFA,” Mr. Blatter said Tuesday evening.
FIFA has been rocked by widespread allegations of corruption and the arrest last week of top officials from the body by Swiss authorities at the behest of U.S. federal investigators. Despite the allegations, Mr. Blatter was re-elected to a fifth term at the helm of the organization on Friday.
On Tuesday, Mr. Blatter said he would resign as soon as a successor had been elected. Without offering a time frame, he called on the executive committee that runs the organization to organize a new election “at the earliest possible opportunity.” He urged this to happen before FIFA’s next official Congress in May 2016.
The news came as a shock to much of the soccer world after it looked like Mr. Blatter was gearing up for battle with his many opponents, including the European football associations that had been his toughest critics and had called on him to resign.
“It was a difficult decision, a brave decision and the right decision,” Michel Platini, the head of European soccer’s governing body UEFA, said in a statement on Mr. Blatter’s resignation.
“While I have a mandate from the membership of FIFA, I do not feel that I have a mandate from the entire world of football.”
European football officials had been set to gather in Berlin during the Champions League Finals this weekend to discuss if and how they should deal with FIFA.
Mr. Blatter has long insisted that the 14 soccer officials who had been indicted by the U.S. authorities on Wednesday had nothing to do with him.
Earlier Tuesday, FIFA issued another statement distancing Mr. Blatter from the corruption charges. This time, the statement denied reports made by the New York Times that Secretary General Jérôme Valcke, Mr. Blatter’s closest lieutenant, had authorized a $10 million, or $11 million, payment at the heart of the investigation into alleged bribes paid to FIFA officials over the awarding of the 2010 World Cup to South Africa.
“The payments totalling $10 million were authorised by the then chairman of the Finance Committee and executed in accordance with the Organisation Regulations of FIFA,” FIFA said in the statement. “Neither the Secretary General Jérôme Valcke nor any other member of FIFA’s senior management were involved in the initiation, approval and implementation of the above project.”
FIFA said the $10 million had been paid to Mr. Warner to allow him to run soccer training programs in the Caribbean. The finance committee chairman at the time of the transfers was Julio Grondona, a longstanding FIFA official who died in 2014.
An hour after FIFA’s statement, the British news agency Press Association published details Tuesday afternoon of a letter sent by the South Africa Football Association to Mr. Valcke in 2008, explicitly asking FIFA to send $10m to a program controlled by Mr. Warner
FIFA simply responded, bafflingly, that “The letter is consistent to our statement where we underlined that the Fifa Finance Committee made the final approval.”
Mr. Blatter has maintained that he had no knowledge of any bribes paid.
In his statement Tuesday evening, he called for widespread changes to FIFA’s operation and leadership structure, including shrinking the size of its executive committtee and forcing its members to be elected by a congress rather than appointed by regional footballing federations.
“The Executive Committee includes representatives of confederations over whom we have no control, but for whose actions FIFA is held responsible. We need deep-rooted structural change,” Mr. Blatter said.
There had been suggestions that UEFA would boycott the World Cup, or pull out of FIFA, though nothing had been agreed.
UEFA’s official stance was that “all options will be discussed,” but the German Football Association DFB, for example, supported neither a boycott of the FIFA governing committee nor the World Cup.
UEFA had made it clear it dislikes Mr. Blatter, but had no real concept for how to unseat him. Rather than seek the FIFA presidency himself, Mr. Platini sent the bland Jordanian Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein into battle against Mr. Blatter.
Prince Ali attracted just 73 votes in elections last Friday, and the 133 votes Mr. Blatter gained showed that, despite the corruption allegations, he maintained a powerbase in Africa and Asia, where he is praised for having spread the game beyond its traditional European and Latin American strongholds.
For his part, Mr. Blatter looked ready to challenge his European critics. In a surprise announcement at the congress, he presented a plan to enlarge the FIFA Executive Committee to at least 30 members, giving more seats to non-European members.
Confederations would have more representation with an expanded board, the FIFA president promised, but it is Asia, Africa and Oceania who stand to profit.
In resigning on Tuesday, Mr. Blatter seemed to reverse this pledge.
Mr. Blatter also appeared intent on weakening UEFA, which represents the richest national soccer leagues, by creating a new office at FIFA for professional clubs – not to be confused with national teams – which he said would directly address their interests in FIFA tournaments. This would rob Germany’s DFB and other national associations of their role representing professional clubs such as Bayern Munich, FC Barcelona and Manchester United.
Some within UEFA had pushed Europe to confront Mr. Blatter’s FIFA head-on.
Allan Hansen, the Danish member of FIFA’s executive committee, even suggested opening the EURO, the Continent’s championship, to non-European teams and to run it at the same time as FIFA’s World Cup.
Such a move would have meant a de-facto break with soccer’s governing body. It would also have crippled FIFA financially, as the powerful European market is one of the most lucrative.
With Tuesday evening’s shock resignation, it appeared likely that these calls for a split would be put on hold.
Barbara Gillmann contributed to this article. Holger Alich is Handelsblatt’s Switzerland correspondent. To contact the authors: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org and Alich@handelsblatt.com