WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Officials involved in FIFA’s under-20 World Cup moved to distance themselves from the governing body’s political and legal issues on Thursday by talking up the tournament scheduled over the next three weeks in New Zealand.
FIFA was thrown into turmoil on Wednesday when 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.
The stain of the arrests also threw some unwelcome focus on the under-20 championship in New Zealand, which begins on Saturday with 24 teams playing 52 games over three weeks, though organizers distanced themselves.
“We don’t anticipate any impact on the tournament at all at this stage,” the head of the local organizing 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.”
FIFA staff at the pre-tournament media conference in Auckland refused to answer questions about the arrests, while local businesses associated with the tournament contacted by Reuters had no comment to make on the imbroglio surrounding the governing body in Switzerland.
Official sporting bodies who had been involved in securing the tournament for New Zealand also reiterated a common theme that their focus was “on organizing a great tournament”.
New Zealand’s Sports Minister Jonathan Coleman also dismissed suggestions the tournament might be tarred by the scandal.
“The focus of the local organizing committee is actually on the tournament delivery and obviously they’ve got a big job ahead of them,” he told reporters at New Zealand’s Parliament.
“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 organizing.
”You can hardly say that a team of 11 Ghanaian players (based in Wellington for the tournament) are any way influenced by what happens in Zurich with FIFA administration, all they’re concerned about is playing to their full potential and doing the best by their country.
“Whatever’s happening with FIFA administrators doesn’t matter to them.”
New Zealand Football (NZF) chief executive Andy Martin had earlier issued a statement from Zurich, also trying to distance the tournament from the furor.
“The developments in the last 24 hours are very serious and we continue to monitor the situation closely so that we can react appropriately,” Martin said in a NZF statement.
”Our delegation in Zurich are in close contact with our Executive Committee and Oceania Football and we will continue to play our role in upholding the integrity of FIFA and its operations.
”New Zealand Football, together with our Local Organising Committee, remain focused on delivering a great FIFA U-20 World Cup, starting on Saturday.
“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