Football: Fifa staff will no longer speak for Blatter's defence, say sources

A picture taken on Jul 20, 2015, shows FIFA president Sepp Blatter gesturing during a press conference at the football's world body headquarter's in Zurich.
A picture taken on Jul 20, 2015, shows FIFA president Sepp Blatter gesturing during a press conference at the football's world body headquarter's in Zurich. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (REUTERS) - Fifa president Sepp Blatter has agreed with the organisation's lawyers that he will not use official Fifa platforms or personnel to issue statements in his defence in response to an investigation by Swiss prosecutors, two sources close to the matter said.

Two sets of lawyers, one representing Blatter individually and another representing FIFA as an organization, agreed that such statements would be more appropriate coming from Blatter's lawyers than from FIFA personnel, the sources said.

The lawyers want to avoid a potential conflict of interest while FIFA itself looks into allegations of criminal mismanagement made by Swiss investigators against Blatter, the sources said.

A spokesman for Fifa's press office declined to comment on the change of practice. Lawyers for Blatter in Switzerland declined to comment.

Blatter, under criminal investigation by Swiss authorities, has held the presidency of world soccer's governing body since 1998 and previously served since 1981 as secretary general, the organisation's No. 2 position.

Four days after winning a fifth term, he rocked the world of soccer in June by saying he would step down in the wake of corruption investigations by US and Swiss authorities. He remains in office ahead of a scheduled February election.

Swiss prosecutors led by Attorney General Michael Lauber said last week they had opened a criminal investigation into Blatter on suspicion of criminal mismanagement and misappropriation of funds. Authorities interrogated Blatter at Fifa headquarters and seized unspecified data from his office.

Fifa's press office has come to Blatter's defence as recently as this month. A Swiss TV report on Sept 11 alleged that the 79-year-old Swiss personally signed a media contract that allowed a Caribbean soccer official to enrich himself. The next day, the press office issued a statement defending the handling of the contract. Blatter and the Caribbean official, former Fifa vice-president Jack Warner, have said they did nothing wrong.

By Monday, the role of the press office had changed. At a Fifa staff meeting in Zurich, Blatter himself read out a statement by his legal team declaring his innocence of any wrongdoing and reiterating his plans to remain in his job until February. His legal team then e-mailed a statement to journalists.

That marked the first occasion on which he was not able to and did not use an official Fifa platform to issue messages defending his conduct, one source said.

The agreement on the use of Fifa personnel was reached after a highly charged internal debate among Fifa officials on Monday, one source said. Some officials argued that Blatter should not use Fifa as a platform to defend himself because it reflected badly on the organization and potentially exposed Fifa to additional legal and public relations risks, the source said.

Fifa's own chief legal counsel, Marco Villiger, and a team of American lawyers Villiger is working with on Fifa's behalf to help the organisation defend its reputation in the face of criminal investigations in both Switzerland and the United States, negotiated on Fifa's behalf with Blatter's personal legal team.