GENEVA — With his organization still reeling from corruption allegations, FIFA President Sepp Blatter faced calls for his resignation Thursday after saying racial abuse on the soccer field could be settled by a handshake and quickly forgotten.
The comment in television interviews Wednesday drew outrage across soccer. British Prime Minister David Cameron called Blatter’s suggestion “appalling,” while the country’s sports minister urged Blatter to leave “for the sake of the game.” The European Union described his remedy for racism as “completely unacceptable.”
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Former Manchester United and English national team player Andrew Cole wrote in a newspaper column that Blatter was “clueless” and an “out-of-touch buffoon.”
Blatter’s latest gaffe follows previous verbal missteps such as suggesting that female 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.
Blatter managed to further discredit FIFA just weeks after he won some praise for promising to confront allegations of financial wrongdoing by senior colleagues as part of reforms following damaging allegations of bribery, vote-rigging and ticket scams.
The 75-year-old Swiss official sparked a furor in England, where authorities are investigating two allegations of racial abuse involving Liverpool and Chelsea players in Premier League games.
“This is the latest episode that calls into question whether this man should be the head of world football,” British sports minister Hugh Robertson said. “For the sake of the game, he should go.”
Cameron said “now is not the time for complacency” in the campaign to stamp out racism.
“It’s appalling to suggest that racism in any way should be accepted as part of the game,” Cameron said in a statement. “A lot of work has gone into ridding racism from all aspects of our society, including football.”
Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand and Blatter then traded barbs on Twitter in an astonishing exchange of views between a professional athlete and an international official. Ferdinand had led a growing chorus of disapproval from black players when he wrote Wednesday that Blatter’s views were “so condescending its almost laughable.”
Ferdinand has been personally involved in the recent racism debate in England because his brother Anton was the target of an alleged slur by Chelsea’s John Terry.
Former international players Shaka Hislop of Trindad and Tobago and Andrew Cole of England backed Ferdinand.
Hislop questioned in a Twitter message whether FIFA was responsible for promoting racial harmony and equality — a claim of soccer’s potential to improve society which Blatter often makes.
“If the answer is ‘Yes’, then Blatter has to go, and go now. HAS TO,” wrote Hislop, who is now an ESPN analyst.
If Blatter did resign, FIFA rules require that his senior vice president, Julio Grondona of Argentina, take over until a likely election at the next congress, scheduled for May in Budapest, Hungary. Grondona, who is 80 and has led Argentina’s soccer federation since 1979, sparked controversy in 2003 when he said Jewish men could not be top-level referees because they “don’t like hard work.”
Opposition to Blatter spread to France, where former international Sidney Govou said the FIFA leader had made “a big error.”
“You must not trivialize racism, it’s serious,” Govou told French radio station RMC.
Blatter’s remarks seemed at odds with his pledge after his June re-election that FIFA would not tolerate a lack of respect on and off the field.
“What he said was a remarkable mistake but I can’t imagine (he should resign),” said Theo van Seggelen, general secretary of the FIFPro group of players’ unions. “He admits it was a mistake, let it be a good lesson,”
Within hours of Blatter’s remarks, the English Football Association charged Liverpool forward Luis Suarez with racially abusing Manchester United defender Patrice Evra, who is black. Liverpool said Suarez will plead not guilty and insisted that the club is “fully supportive of Luis in this matter.”
Terry, the England captain, has said his comments were taken out of context. He is being investigated by the FA and London police.
Also Thursday, European soccer’s governing body was hearing a case in which England was the victim of alleged discrimination. The Bulgarian soccer federation has been cited after its fans allegedly directed verbal abuse at England players during a European Championship qualifier in Sofia in September.