Blatter to visit US in 2016, rejects talk of avoiding FBI
ZURICH (AP) — Sepp Blatter says he has no fear of setting foot in the United States — no matter what the FBI might be doing.
The FIFA president insisted Friday he is not avoiding the U.S. despite a reported probe implicating two of his former FIFA colleagues in financial corruption.
In fact, Blatter plans an American visit in June 2016 for the Copa America tournament.
“I will be there if elected,” said Blatter, who is widely expected to win another term in the FIFA presidential vote on May 29. “Even if not elected, they will invite me I am sure.”
Just two weeks before the election that would extend his 17-year reign in world soccer’s top job, Blatter is pursuing a low-key campaign.
Blatter talked about his latest soccer peacemaking mission to Israel and the Palestinian territories; hinted at changing how nations qualify to play in and bid to host the World Cup; and sent a letter to 209 voting federations explaining his priorities.
The single page document — including the slogan “Develop the game, touch the world and build a better future” — is as near as Blatter has come to a campaign manifesto for a fifth presidential term. Fighting discrimination and match-fixing and helping professional clubs would be key.
Still, three days after ESPN aired a documentary profile of him, Blatter was pressed on a central claim.
He denied avoiding the United States amid reports that the FBI is investigating former leaders of CONCACAF, the U.S.-based regional soccer body which gets millions of dollars each year from FIFA.
Blatter said he was aware that Jack Warner of Trinidad and Tobago and Chuck Blazer of the United States, both one-time FIFA executive committee members, were under scrutiny.
“I know, and this everybody knows, that in the U.S. there is an investigation against former people (that) have been in my government,” Blatter said. “But it is nothing against me.”
Blatter visited the U.S. in May 2011 for a CONCACAF meeting in Miami and returned weeks later for a Gold Cup semifinal match in Houston. ESPN claimed he has purposely stayed away since.
On Friday, Blatter said he “can go there” and noted there are international channels for authorities “if they want to speak with me.”
If re-elected, Blatter is likely to travel to North America for the Women’s World Cup kicking off in Canada in June, and the FIFA congress scheduled in Mexico City next May.
But his next visit to the U.S. could be for the centenary Copa America, the South American championship being hosted next year as a one-off by the U.S. Soccer Federation.
The U.S. also hopes to stage the 2026 World Cup and got a boost Friday.
Blatter said FIFA’s executive committee could pass new rules this month that would block a continent that hosts the World Cup from bidding for the next two editions. With Russia staging the 2018 tournament, Europe would then be ineligible to host the World Cup again until 2030.
“It should be this way,” Blatter said Friday, adding that the proposal is “more than an option.”
The Americans could compete against CONCACAF neighbors Canada and Mexico. African countries could also join, and Morocco has expressed interest.
FIFA will choose the 2026 host in a May 2017 vote. It will be the first since December 2010 when a controversial 2018-2022 joint process chose Russia and Qatar, which edged the U.S. in a final round of voting.
The executive committee meets on May 24-25 and again May 30 to confirm the allocation of 2018 World Cup qualifying slots open to each continent.
Blatter has long encouraged smaller regions to seek more places, potentially taking spots from Europe’s 13 qualifying slots in the 32-team lineup.
On Friday, Blatter hinted at expanding the intercontinental playoffs, which currently do not involve European or African teams.
“That is a good idea and you are not so far away,” Blatter said. “This gives a little bit more incentive.”
His latest presidential term, which began in turmoil amid a bribery scandal that removed his intended Qatari opponent, is nearing an end with Blatter seeking to calm tensions between the Israeli and Palestinian soccer federations.
Israeli security restrictions limiting movement of Palestinian players, visiting teams and soccer equipment has led to a proposal to suspend Israel from FIFA at the May 29 meeting.
Blatter said he will meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Tuesday.
″(Netanyahu) would not receive the FIFA delegation if he would not be ready to make concessions. I am sure of it,” said Blatter, who will meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Wednesday.
Blatter opposes the suspension vote, saying Israel did not break FIFA statutes in a political issue outside soccer’s control.
Aged 79, he did not commit to leaving FIFA in 2019.
“I feel good now, but you never know. But first, let me be elected,” said Blatter, who was then asked if a decisive 140-plus first-round vote tally was possible.
He smiled and replied: “God bless you.”