* FIFA officials refuse to address corruption scandal
* Media conference shut down
* Under-20 tournament to begin mired in controversy (Recasts after media conference in Auckland)
By Greg Stutchbury
WELLINGTON, May 28 (Reuters) - Flustered FIFA officials shut down a media conference in New Zealand on Thursday after being inundated with questions about the sport’s latest scandal.
What was meant to be a promotion for FIFA’s under-20 World Cup, the tournament that has launched the careers of players like Lionel Messi, descended into farce when local journalists quizzed organisers about the corruption scandal embroiling the world governing body in Switzerland.
”Here we are not getting into any questions of this,“ FIFA’s head of the tournament Marion Mayer-Vorfelder told reporters in Auckland. ”Every question of this kind please refer to our colleagues in Zurich.
“We really want to focus on the under-20 (World Cup), as I said the best teams in the world are here.”
FIFA media operations manager Monika Huser then repeated several times they had nothing further to add and suggested they had been gagged by their bosses in Switzerland.
”We don’t want to talk about it,“ she said. ”We can’t actually talk about the recent events happening in Zurich.
“We cannot, even if we wanted to, we do not have any more information. We cannot comment on that and we are awaiting further guidance.”
Soccer’s governing body has been thrown into turmoil after Swiss police arrested seven senior officials at the request of United States authorities for alleged corruption involving more than $150 million in bribes over 24 years.
The controversy has tainted the world governing body’s Congress, which will hold a presidential election on Friday.
Earlier, New Zealand soccer officials and politicians attempted to distance themselves from the scandal, reiterating a oft-repeated message on Thursday that it would have little impact on the age-group tournament.
“We don’t anticipate any impact on the tournament at all at this stage,” the head of the local organising committee Dave Beeche told reporters in Auckland.
“Obviously it’s a developing situation, but we’re focusing on the task at hand and that’s putting the final touches in place and make sure we deliver a great event.”
Local businesses associated with the tournament contacted by Reuters had no comment to make.
New Zealand’s Sports Minister Jonathan Coleman also dismissed suggestions the tournament might be tarred by the scandal.
“The focus of the local organising committee is actually on the tournament delivery and obviously they’ve got a big job ahead of them,” he told reporters.
“And all this stuff is happening overseas so it’ll be a while for all the to come through the wash, but I‘m confident the New Zealand has no direct involvement or implication in anything that involves that touches this scandal.”
Local politicians also suggested there was little correlation between what happened in Zurich and what happened on the sporting fields in New Zealand.
“It’s of very little interest to us as a host city,” said Justin Lester, the deputy mayor of Wellington, which will host six group games and three knockout phase matches.
“We’re about watching the sport, hosting the teams who have qualified legitimately and it’s all been on the field and that’s what we’re organising.”
New Zealand Football (NZF) chief executive Andy Martin had earlier issued a statement from Zurich, also trying to distance the tournament from the furore.
“New Zealand Football, together with our Local Organising Committee, remain focused on delivering a great FIFA U-20 World Cup, starting on Saturday,” Martin said in a statement.
“We do not anticipate that these events will impact on the tournament.”
A spokesperson for the Oceania Football Confederation said they had no comment to make.
New Zealand face Ukraine in the first game of the tournament at North Harbour Stadium on Saturday (0100 GMT). (additional reporting by Gyles Beckford; Editing by Nick Mulvenney/Amlan Chakraborty)