- Associated Press - Friday, May 27, 2011

LONDON (AP) - With Manchester United playing Barcelona for the title of European champion, this should have been a week to drool over the beauty of soccer, an opportunity to yet again pay homage to the sublime skills of Lionel Messi, the brains of managers Alex Ferguson and Pep Guardiola and the sporting excellence of two great clubs.

But FIFA’s grubby soccer bureaucrats are spoiling the fun. To their eternal shame, the pre-match talk is of bribery, corruption, allegations of payoffs and bundles of cash to swing FIFA’s presidential election. Yet more stomach-churning ugliness at the pinnacle of world soccer from officials now so discredited that they are unworthy of licking the boots of those who will entertain us in the Champions League final on Saturday night.

When FIFA bureaucrats can’t even organize their own internal ballot without turning it into a farce, then how can they be trusted to oversee global management of the beautiful game? Short answer: they can’t.

The timing of their latest crisis is unforgivable. In usurping the hard-earned limelight from players who will grace the pitch at the home of soccer _ Wembley _ FIFA is committing the ultimate sin.

The focus this week should have been entirely on soccer ambassadors like Edwin van der Sar, United’s goalkeeper who will be playing the last match of his long and admirable career.

If those who run soccer were doing their job correctly, which means working efficiently, honestly and quietly in the background, not needing to be heard nor seen, we could have spent this week thinking only of whether Ferguson should be bold and play Javier Hernandez alongside Wayne Rooney in attack or instead thicken United’s midfield as Kryptonite against Barcelona’s super-trio of Messi, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta.

Instead, FIFA is stealing headlines (“WHAT A SACK OF WEASELS!” was the verdict of one London newspaper on Friday) from footballers who deserve them far more. How desperately unfair. How wrong.

FIFA’s so-called ethics committee is now meant to clean up this mess. A pressure-hose would surely be more effective, because the dirt that has been thrown at FIFA over the years seems caked so thick. You could fill books _ indeed, some have _ with all the suspicions and claims of malfeasance. And even if many of them haven’t been backed up with rock-solid proof, soccer’s world governing body, at the very best, has an awful image problem.

The latest allegations that would-be president Mohamed bin Hammam sought to bribe voters are, however, more damaging than others that FIFA has swatted away because this time they come from an insider, Chuck Blazer. The American is a member of FIFA’s executive committee which, among other things, decides which nations host the World Cup. For that rich prize, presidents, prime ministers and princes get down before them on bended knee.

Bin Hammam also sits on that committee. And he, in turn, claims that the man he is trying to unseat, FIFA president Sepp Blatter, may have known about but did nothing to stop any payoffs to voters in the Caribbean.

In short, it looks like a snake eating its own tail, with former friends and allies within FIFA turning on each other in the dog fight for one of the most powerful jobs in sport.

An ideal outcome for soccer would be that the snake consumes itself entirely, that FIFA’s discredited leadership be replaced and rejuvenated. That is what needs to happen for FIFA to begin winning back credibility. But that is not likely to happen any time soon.

It’s impossible to know how this latest scandal will play out _ since FIFA doesn’t like to wash its dirty laundry in public its machinations will happen behind closed doors.

One scenario, perhaps the likeliest if the allegations are proved, is that bin Hammam is tossed out of the ballot and that Blatter gets a fourth and final four-year term unopposed next Wednesday. Bin Hammam insists he’s done nothing wrong.

Or, if Blatter did ignore any payoffs, the ethics committee that will meet this Sunday could sanction him, too. That, however, hardly seems likely given the power and network of contacts and influence he has built up in his 13 years at the top.

Or both men could be cleared and someone else could take the fall if payments were made. Someone like Jack Warner, a FIFA vice president who is also being investigated. Warner could be a good patsy, because he’s been a previous target of numerous claims of wrongdoing, including allegations of involvement in World Cup ticket-scalping.

If Warner is axed, Blatter could portray himself as a corruption-buster.

Either way, all this is ugly, ugly, ugly, and it’s unforgivable that it has overshadowed footballers about to play one of the games of their lives.

___

John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/johnleicester

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