LONDON (AP) - Trying to stem the uproar caused by his comments on racism, FIFA President Sepp Blatter expressed regret Friday for causing offense to anyone but stopped short of a full apology and rejected calls to resign.
Blatter said he was sorry for the furor caused by his claim that racist abuse does not exist on the soccer field and that any racial incidents could be settled by a handshake at the end of a match.
The conciliatory move comes after Blatter was ridiculed in Britain for his comments. British Prime Minister David Cameron joined a wave of condemnation, and David Beckham called the Blatter statements “appalling.” A top British soccer official also urged Blatter to resign.
Any comments that appear to diminish racism would hit a nerve in Britain, where authorities are now investigating allegations that Liverpool striker Luis Suarez and Chelsea defender John Terry racially abused black players during Premier League games.
Speaking Friday in a BBC interview in Zurich, Blatter said he “deeply regretted” using “unfortunate words” in a pair of television interviews on Wednesday. Still, he didn’t retract his view that racial insults could be forgotten after shaking hands.
“I am sorry and I regret that my statements earlier this week have resulted in an unfortunate situation and has taken this dimension. I am committed to the fight against racism and I have no doubt about that,” Blatter said.
“When you have done something which was not totally correct, I can only say I am sorry for all those people affected by my declarations,” Blatter added. “It hurts and I am still hurting because I couldn’t envisage such a reaction.”
Blatter, the 75-year-old Swiss who was re-elected to a four-year term in June, is still trying to restore the world soccer body’s image after a major corruption scandal in May. On Friday, he ruled out leaving his post over the racism comments.
“I cannot resign,” he told the BBC. “Why should I resign? When you are faced with a problem you have to solve the problem. And to go out and to leave the organization, this would be unfair, this would be totally unfair and is not compatible with my fighting spirit, my character, my energy, my commitment.”
Blatter insisted his “fight against racism and discrimination will go on,” and said any players found guilty of racism on the field should be thrown out of the game.
“Zero tolerance,” he said. “This was a good lesson for me as well.”
After Blatter’s initial remarks caused a storm Wednesday, FIFA attempted to curb the outrage by trying to clarify the president’s comments with a statement on the organization’s website. That was accompanied by a photo of Blatter hugging Tokyo Sexwale, a black South African government minister who was an anti-apartheid campaigner and former political prisoner on Robben Island.
Sexwale, speaking in Johannesburg on Friday, said Blatter was wrong to say what he did and that his comments were “problematic” and “damaging,” but added he was not willing “to kick a man when he is down.”
“You can’t wash it (racism) away with a handshake,” Sexwale said. “Once you use a racial slur, it doesn’t go away. You can’t exchange it with a jersey. You can’t mitigate it with a handshake.”
As for the photo, Sexwale said he wanted to believe that was not just a publicity stunt.
“But I indicated that perceptions, impressions could be created worldwide in certain circles worldwide that this was an attempt to damage control or to clean one’s image,” said Sexwale, who spoke to Blatter Friday morning.
When the picture was first put up, it drew renewed criticism, including from Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand, who is black. And that touched off a very public Twitter dispute between Ferdinand and the FIFA leader, with Ferdinand calling Blatter’s views “so condescending its almost laughable.”
Blatter’s latest comments follows previous gaffes such as suggesting that women players should wear tighter shorts, and gay fans should refrain from having sex at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar where homosexual acts are illegal.
But in the rest of Europe and around the world, Blatter’s comments have not been met with the same outrage. In addition, anti-Blatter sentiment has been high in Britain since England’s failed bid to host the 2018 World Cup. The FIFA votes for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups last year were surrounded by claims of ethical misconduct.
Before Friday’s apology, many in Britain took their criticisms of Blatter public. While Cameron stopped short of calling for Blatter’s resignation, British Sports Minister Hugh Robertson said the FIFA leader should go “for the sake of the game.”
Beckham, perhaps the most recognizable name and face in the world of soccer, joined in the condemnation of Blatter.
“The comments were appalling. A lot people have said that,” Beckham said in Los Angeles, where he and his Galaxy teammates are preparing for the MLS championship game. “I don’t think that the comments were very good for this game.”
Beckham also dismissed Blatter’s idea that a handshake was enough following racist abuse.
“It can’t be swept under the carpet. It can’t be sorted out with a handshake,” Beckham said “That’s not the way of the world and that’s not how racism should be treated. … Racism is something we want to keep out of sport but also life in general.”
Neil Warnock, manager of Premier League club Queens Park Rangers, suggested that black players around the world should boycott their next international matches in a show of protest against Blatter.
“I don’t see that anybody is going to sack him,” Warnock said Friday. “I think the only way we could get him out of the situation that he is in if every black player in the country, in every country, refused to play in the next international game.
“That’s the only way. Nothing else is going to get him out until he wants to go.”
AP Sports Writers Gerald Imray in Johannesburg and Graham Dunbar in Geneva contributed to this report.
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