South Africa's sports minister is insisting the nation did not pay a bribe to FIFA officials to secure the 2010 World Cup. The minister also has offered praise for the president of the world soccer authority, who is stepping down amid a growing corruption scandal.
Sepp Blatter's announcement Tuesday that he will resign coincided with word from U.S. law enforcement officials that Blatter is the focus of a federal corruption investigation.
Last week, the U.S. Justice Department indicted and arrested 14 FIFA officials and executives, accusing them of taking more than $150 million in bribes.
Speaking Wednesday in Johannesburg, South African Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula praised Blatter, who has long enjoyed support from African football officials.
“Sepp Blatter, it was not the plan, but it is sad to part ways in this way. And I think he will forever be remembered for the role that he played in assisting us to bring the World Cup, the first one ever, to the African continent,” said Mbalula.
But Mbalula continued to "categorically deny" allegations in the U.S. indictment that South Africa paid a bribe to secure the lucrative tournament. He said the $10-million payment was instead a legitimate sum meant to help assist football programs in developing nations.
“We are prepared to explain to anyone, including the FBI, why we will tell them that this thing was not a bribe. They can wake us up anytime, we are ready," Mbalula said. "I will be be going to see Floyd Mayweather, they can find me on my way to America very soon. So I am ready to explain to them how this money was done and why it was done in the manner in which it was done. We are ready to explain that to them, and to dissuade them to believe that is a bribe.”
South African Department of Sports and Recreation Director General Alec Moemi said the nation’s relations with FIFA will not fundamentally change for better or worse, now that Blatter is gone.
“On our part, the relationship remains the same. We will deal with FIFA the same way we have dealt with it, and the minister is correct," said Moemi. "The fact that this matter has come up does not mean our other engagements on other things, including the insistence of the South African government that we get to the bottom of the issue of alleged match-fixing, that we also look into that. So the relationship will fairly remain the same.”
Swiss authorities are investigating whether bribery was a factor in decisions to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 tournament to Qatar.