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Under Cloud Of Scandal, Sepp Blatter Seeks 5th Term As FIFA President

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A meeting of soccer officials in Switzerland this week did not exactly go as planned. The focus was supposed to be today as FIFA, the sport's governing body, elects a president.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Of course, that has been overshadowed. Police arrested several FIFA officials on Wednesday. The current president, Sepp Blatter, has not been charged by U.S. authorities. But many say he is responsible for allowing corruption to flourish at the top of the beautiful game. Still, Blatter's re-election today looks likely. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Every four years, FIFA delegates gather in Zurich to elect their president. But with seven FIFA executives now facing criminal charges of pocketing millions of dollars in bribes over two decades, there have been calls to postpone today's vote, including from the French foreign minister. The head of the European soccer authority, Michel Platini, said enough was enough. He asked FIFA President Sepp Blatter to step down.

MICHEL PLATINI: I have affection for Mr. Blatter. And if it's not me to tell him, nobody will tell him.

BEARDSLEY: There are now two investigations into the organization, one led by the U.S. Department of Justice. Attorney General Loretta Lynch charged that officials at the world's most powerful and lucrative sporting body had abused their positions of trust to acquire millions in bribes and kickbacks year after year, tournament after tournament. Though Blatter is not personally implicated, critics say he is at the heart of the organization's culture of corruption. Greg Dyke is head of the English Football Association. He spoke to the BBC.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

GREG DYKE: Mr. Blatter, whether he is involved in any of these shenanigans or not, he's irrelevant. He is the president who has led FIFA for 16 years, and now, we look at the results. And he must take responsibility.

BEARDSLEY: The second investigation is led by Swiss authorities. Officials raided FIFA's headquarters here, looking for evidence supporting suspicions that the 2018 and 2022 World Cup tournaments awarded to Russia and Qatar were rigged.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRES VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking foreign language).

BEARDSLEY: Russian President Vladimir Putin called the probes just another obvious attempt by the U.S. to extend its jurisdiction to other countries. Beset by reporters here in Zurich, Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko crowed that Russia would host a beautiful World Cup.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VITALY MUTKO: There's no criminality, no criminality. There's no problem.

BEARDSLEY: As a few protesters and mobs of journalists gathered outside the convention center where delegates are set to vote later today, there were some who shared Putin's viewpoint.

ALI CUBA: This a typical American show because they say that allegation for 10 years. Why they waited for this moment?

BEARDSLEY: That's Ali Cuba, a FIFA delegate from South Sudan. He says Blatter has spent years promoting the sport in poorer countries and brought the World Cup to South Africa in 2010. Cuba says the Europeans may no longer support him, but all 54 Africa members of FIFA are absolutely loyal to him.

CUBA: We are not came here to talk about politic or justice. We come here to talk about football. And Blatter has done a lot for Africa.

BEARDSLEY: FIFA's scandals have always seemed to slide off Blatter, even though many say he runs the organization as if it were his personal fiefdom. Blatter has also made - some say bought - staunch allies across the globe. Blatter may have canceled three speaking engagements here this week to avoid the glare of the media, but he re-emerged last night to address his beloved delegates without an ounce of contrition.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SEPP BLATTER: Actions of individuals, if proven, bring shame and humiliation on football and demand action and change from us all. We cannot allow the reputation of football and FIFA to be dragged through the mud any longer.

BEARDSLEY: But at 79, he clearly has no intention of giving up his prominent place in the sports world. If re-elected to a fifth term today, Blatter says he'll work to root out corruption and begin to restore trust again in FIFA. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Zurich. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.