LONDON – A week of scandal just got worse.
Explosive allegations about bribery at the highest level of FIFA pushed Manchester United Ryan Giggs off soccer's front pages Wednesday, opening up the prospect of civil war in soccer's top governing body.
Most critically, they were made by a member of the FIFA Executive Committee -- American Chuck Blazer -- against a man who had worked hand-in-hand with Blazer for over 20 years, CONCACAF President Jack Warner.
The action is unprecedented: Never before has an ExCo figure accused another of corruption.
The accusations, said to be backed up by eyewitness testimony and a private investigation headed up by Chicago legal firm Collins and Collins, have the potential to derail the pending presidential election, which pits incumbent Sepp Blatter against Mohamed bin Hammam of Qatar.
Blazer alleges that Warner and bin Hammam offered gifts equaling $40,000 in cash for votes at a meeting of the Carribean Football Union, one of the member states of CONCACAF. Both men issued denials, with bin Hammam calling the timing of the allegations suspicious.
Nine ExCo members have now been fingered in a spiraling corruption inquiry that kicked off last year when two members were suspended for soliciting bribes for ballots. These latest allegations leave fully one-third of the ExCo, which votes on key FIFA matters, under investigation for ethical lapses.
Wednesday's revelations signal a profound shift in what had always been a lock-tight ExCo that managed to deflect shame and embarrassments in equal measure. FIFA -- already rocked by admissions of vote-trading during the World Cup bid process and allegations of vote-buying that left two men barred from voting -- now looks to be coming apart.
Most critically, the main power players at FIFA appear to have turned upon one another in a no-holds barred power grab. It's anyone's guess what will happen now in the halls of Zurich, but one thing is certain: FIFA is facing its own Olympic moment. The pressure may finally now be enough to clean up one of the world's dirtiest sporting instititutions.
Warner is a key figure at FIFA, so adept at gathering votes and so good at making money that Blatter has long taken a lenient view toward the Trinidad and Tobago man's long list of reported indiscretions. Warner was let off with a slap on the wrist after he was charged in a ticket-reselling scheme, but he has been dogged by investigations and allegations -- most famously those leveled by Andrew Jennings and the BBC last year. Prior to the World Cup bids, he was said to have promised his vote to England then reneged. Last month, he was named on the floor of Parliament by Lord Treisman as requesting a $4 million bribe for his vote. Warner laughed all those allegations off.
Blazer, the only American on the ExCo, is wildly underestimated. His candor and exaggerated manners -- he is host to a gleefully funny website and Twitter account -- have charmed reporters worldwide, but conceal one of the keenest political minds in the sport. He has worked with Warner for decades, but was known to be deeply upset over the handling of the World Cup bid process. The fact that he is the man behind the investigation has long-time FIFA observers guessing whether he is truly fed up or has seen a political opening.
Bin Hammam angrily questioned the timing of the accusations, calling it a political tactic by Blatter. He might be correct: The Qatari, who heads up the largesse-dispensing Goal committee for FIFA, is locked in an ugly race with the incumbent, and Blatter, a ruthless campaigner, has reacted with an ever-increasing level of viciousness.
Blatter's increasingly paranoid and dictatorial re-election campaign has some insiders believing that he is beginning to alienate even his long-time faithful. Even with his reputation for over-the-top statements, Blatter raised eyebrows two weeks ago when he claimed that were he not re-elected, a "black hole" would open up at FIFA. That put the lie to informal vote counting for the upcoming elections, which Blatter looked to easily win.
But Blatter was rattled last week by a tepid reception at a meeting of the African federations, a union of associations that had long formed the base of his support. And Wednesday's allegations raised the prospect that Warner might have read the tea leaves and switched allegiances -- and his crucial bloc of 35 votes -- to bin Hammam.
If nothing else, this is just the latest in a series of sordid, sad tales of venality coming from a sport that looks morally bereft. In a week where many had hoped the focus would be on the greatest club game in Europe, instead we have been consumed by sex, blackmail and bribery. It's a sad comment on how far off the rails this sport has really gone.