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Controversial World Cup soccer tournaments in Russia and Qatar will go ahead as planned, a senior FIFA official insisted Wednesday despite a probe into “criminal mismanagement” and “money laundering” over their winning bids.
Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022 “will be played,” FIFA’s director of communications Walter De Gregorio told reporters at a hastily-arranged news conference in Zurich.
He ruled out any re-vote despite the news that Swiss federal prosecutors are investigating “irregularities” that led to “unjust enrichment” during the process of award the events to controversial host nations.
The bidding process has been dogged with suspicion ever since FIFA awarded the 2022 tournament to Qatar — a tiny Gulf nation with a weak soccer history and human-rights concerns and where daytime temperatures of 100 degrees have forced organizers to switch dates from summer to winter. The U.S. also sought to host the 2022 World Cup.
De Gregorio also insisted that Friday’s expected coronation of Sepp Blatter for a fifth term as FIFA president would still go ahead because Blatter was not among those arrested.
“The president is not involved … so how can you say he has to … step down?” he told increasingly incredulous reporters. “In two days, if the 209 members re-elect him, he is the president for next four years.”
The probe by Swiss prosecutors began March 10 but was only made public after Wednesday’s arrests in a parallel Department of Justice investigation into 14 people — including nine FIFA officials — charged with corruption.
Both investigations were triggered by information passed to authorities in November by FIFA itself, De Gregorio explained. “For FIFA this is good … not good in terms of image or reputation, but in terms of cleaning up,” he said. “FIFA is the damaged party.”
Blatter, who has ignored multiple calls for him to stand down in recent years, was apparently undeterred by Wednesday’s dramatic arrests.
“The stress factor is a little bit higher today than it was yesterday [but] he is quite relaxed because he knows that once again he is not involved,” De Gregorio said, before clarifying that Blatter was “not dancing in his office.”
FIFA had no prior knowledge of the arrests, De Gregorio said. “None of us had any idea … if I had information I would have gone to bed earlier yesterday.”