FIFA suspended senior executives Mohamed bin Hammam and Jack Warner over bribery allegations Sunday, while completely exonerating President Sepp Blatter in the gravest corruption crisis facing football's world governing body.
Blatter now is in line to be re-elected unopposed to a fourth term Wednesday after his only challenger, Bin Hammam, withdrew his candidacy just hours before being provisionally excluded from all football activities by FIFA's ethics committee.
The ethics panel said there was sufficient evidence to further investigate allegations that bin Hammam and Warner, the CONCACAF President, offered $40,000 bribes to delegates at a Caribbean football association meeting on May 10-11 in Trinidad.
The payments were allegedly made to secure votes for bin Hammam, a Qatari who heads Asia's football confederation, in his campaign to unseat Blatter. The evidence was compiled by American executive committee member Chuck Blazer.
FIFA said bin Hammam and Warner, a FIFA vice president from Trinidad, will now face a full FIFA inquiry. If found guilty, they could be expelled from FIFA and banned for life from all football activity.
''We are satisfied that there is a case to be answered,'' Petrus Damaseb, deputy chairman of the ethics committee, said at a news conference at FIFA's headquarters.
Bin Hammam said the suspension is ''unfortunate but this is where we are - this is FIFA.''
Two officials from the Caribbean Football Union, Debbie Minguell and Jason Sylvester, were also suspended over the bribery allegations.
Bin Hammam, who denied any wrongdoing, had asked the ethics panel to investigate Blatter on grounds that he knew of alleged bribe attempts and did nothing about it.
But Damaseb said the five-man panel received ''lots of confirmation from every individual conceivable'' that there was no evidence to take action Blatter, who has been office since 1998.
''Is there a reason I should not believe him?'' Damaseb, a Namibian judge, told reporters. ''You can disagree with the decision I have taken. I can just give you the reasoning behind our decision.''
FIFA stressed that, despite the turmoil, the election will go ahead as scheduled on Wednesday during the congress of 208 national members.
With FIFA's reputation severely tarnished by repeated allegations of vote-buying and financial wrongdoing, Blatter responded Sunday by saying he regrets ''what has happened in the last few days and weeks.''
''FIFA's image has suffered a great deal as a result, much to the disappointment of FIFA itself and all football fans,'' the Swiss official said.
FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke acknowledged that this was a watershed moment for the organization.
''It's sad - definitely there is a need for change,'' Valcke said. ''FIFA must make the necessary changes so that the institution has systems in place to avoid that something like this happens again.
''This is the pattern of the work which we have to do very quickly in the next months - to change what has to be changed and put in place a number of systems to make sure that the presidential election also comes under a number of rules.''
Warner, the CONCACAF President, had warned that a ''football tsunami'' would be unleashed after the findings of the FIFA panel were released.
The corruption crisis was sparked by Blazer, whose evidence file implicated his executive committee colleagues. Blazer, Warner's longtime No. 2 at the CONCACAF regional body, spent more than an hour at FIFA headquarters before leaving Sunday.
Bin Hammam, who decided to run for president after helping Qatar secure the 2022 World Cup, pulled out of the race early Sunday morning
''Recent events have left me hurt and disappointed - on a professional and personal level,'' bin Hammam wrote on his personal website. ''It saddens me that standing up for the causes that I believed in has come at a great price - the degradation of FIFA's reputation. This is not what I had in mind for FIFA and this is unacceptable.
''I cannot allow the name that I loved to be dragged more and more in the mud because of competition between two individuals. The game itself and the people who love it around the world must come first. It is for this reason that I announce my withdrawal from the presidential election.
''I pray that my withdrawal will not be tied to the investigation held by the FIFA ethics committee as I will appear before the ethics committee to clear my name from the baseless allegations that have been made against me.''
Bin Hammam and Warner, a 28-year veteran at FIFA's high table, are accused of arranging bribes for up to 25 presidential voters from the Caribbean Football Union.
Bin Hammam has acknowledged paying travel and accommodation expenses, and conference costs, but denies vote-buying.
Instead, he implicated Blatter's camp in a plot to remove him from the election contest, and fought back by bringing the FIFA president into the ethics case.
According to bin Hammam's formal complaint, Blatter broke FIFA ''duty of disclosure'' rules because he was apparently aware via Warner that payments had been arranged and ''had no issue.''
The evidence file was compiled by John Collins, a former United States federal prosecutor who is now a member of FIFA's legal committee.
Blatter succeeded Brazil's Joao Havelange, defeating then UEFA president Lennart Johansson at the 1998 FIFA Congress. Blatter acknowledges that claims of vote-buying surrounded his first election but has always denied involvement.
After facing a challenge from African football president Issa Hayatou in 2002, Blatter was re-elected unopposed for a third successive term in 2007.