MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The Asian Football Confederation has re-affirmed its support for embattled FIFA boss Sepp Blatter and pushed for Friday’s presidential election to go ahead despite the corruption scandal that has rocked soccer’s global governing body.
The AFC, which represents 47 member nations, has been a staunch ally of the 79-year-old Swiss and the bloc’s support will be vital for his hopes of clinging to the presidency for a fifth term.
“The Asian Football Confederation expresses its disappointment and sadness at Wednesday’s events in Zurich whilst opposing any delay in the FIFA Presidential elections to take place on Friday May 29 in Zurich,” the AFC said in a statement posted on its website (the-afc.com) on Thursday.
“Furthermore, the AFC reiterates its decision taken at the AFC Congress in Sao Paulo in 2014, endorsed at subsequent Congresses in Melbourne and Manama in 2015, to support FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter.”
FIFA has been thrown into renewed crisis with the arrests of seven of the governing body’s most powerful officials in Switzerland on Wednesday over corruption allegations.
They are now waiting extradition to the United States where authorities have said nine soccer officials and five sports and promotions executives face corruption charges involving more than $150 million in bribes.
U.S. prosecutors said they aimed to make more arrests but would not be drawn on whether Blatter, for long the most powerful man in the sport, was a target of the probe.
The European soccer body UEFA called for the election, which pits Blatter against Jordanian Prince Ali bin Al Hussein, to be postponed but FIFA is determined it will go ahead.
Though the U.S. probe’s indictments have targeted soccer officials in the Caribbean and central America, Swiss authorities have also announced their own criminal investigation into the awarding of the next two World Cups hosted in Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022.
The awarding of the 2022 tournament to Qatar, a tiny desert country with no domestic tradition of soccer, proved controversial, with subsequent corruption allegations embroiling former AFC President Mohammed Bin Hammam.
The Qatari, a former member of FIFA’s all-powerful executive committee, was to oppose Blatter at the last presidential election in 2011 but was banned for life after an investigation by the governing body’s ethics committee.
Bin Hammam and Qatari’s bid team have consistently denied any wrongdoing, but accusations of impropriety continue to rock the sprawling continent.
The AFC suspended its general secretary Alex Soosay earlier this month after a Malaysian newspaper reported Soosay had asked another official to hide some documents during a corruption probe.
“The AFC is against any form of corruption in football and fully supports any actions taken by the independent FIFA Ethics Committee where wrongdoing may have occurred, whether such actions affect Asian officials or otherwise,” the AFC said.
“The AFC is still undergoing its own process of reform and has taken many concrete steps in the last two years to improve governance in the Confederation, whilst recognizing that there is still much work to do.”
Though the AFC’s top brass have declared Asia will vote for Blatter as a bloc, other officials at a January congress in Melbourne would not rule out some dissent.
“It’s a free vote and the declaration by the president of the AFC, Sheikh Salman, that Asia will vote as a bloc for Blatter is arrogant in the extreme and disrespectful of his own membership,” Australian Les Murray, a former member of FIFA’s ethics committee wrote in his blog on local broadcaster SBS’s website (theworldgame.sbs.com.au).
Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Nick Mulvenney