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U.S. probe into FIFA bribes reaches Blatter’s No. 2

Closer and closer...Closer and closer...
Closer and closer...Photograph by Markus Ulmer — Pressefoto ULMER

The U.S. investigation into bribery and corruption at the governing body of world soccer took another twist Tuesday, as FIFA denied claims that its number two official was involved in an extraordinary payment linked to the award of the 2010 World Cup to South Africa.

The latest bombshell exploded late Monday, when British journalist Martyn Ziegler posted a letter from the former head of the South African Football Association Molefi Oliphant that appeared to confirm that FIFA Secretary-General Jérôme Valcke had been directly involved in the transfer of $10 million to a regional fund administered by Jack Warner, one of seven former FIFA bosses indicted last week on charges of bribery.

The U.S. attorneys’ indictment alleges that the payment–made in three wire transfers and officially designated for a FIFA program sponsoring soccer among the “African Diaspora” in the Caribbean and North America–was cover for a bribe made to ensure that South Africa won the right to host the 2010 World Cup. The New York Times reported Tuesday that investigators suspect Valcke, who wasn’t among those indicted last week, of having made the payment.

The payment was made to accounts controlled by Warner, who was head of the Trinidad & Tobago soccer federation and also the CONCACAF regional federation for North and Central America, making him one of FIFA’s most influential members.

Over the weekend, Danny Jordaan, head of the South African Football Association, had confirmed that SAFA allowed FIFA to make the payment on its behalf, deducting the amount from the tournament organizing committee’s $423 million budget.

FIFA denied the fresh allegations, saying that “neither the Secretary General Jérôme Valcke nor any other member of FIFA’s senior management were involved in the initiation, approval and implementation” of the project. It said that SAFA itself had instructed that the Diaspora Legacy Program be administered by Warner, who was deputy chairman of the finance committee at the time.

FIFA also said that Julio Grondona, its former finance chief who died last year, had authorized the payment (read more about Grondona here). The Guardian Tuesday quoted FIFA’s Oliphant’s letter, however, is clearly addressed to Valcke.

The scandal didn’t stop Blatter last week from being re-elected to serve a fifth term as FIFA president by a large majority. UEFA, the European regional federation whose teams generally win the World Cup and generate most of FIFA’s income, had opposed Blatter’s re-election and is now widely expected to consider boycotting future World Cup tournaments when it holds its own congress later this week.