By Simon Evans
PANAMA CITY (Reuters) – FIFA presidential candidate Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa said that if he is elected he will examine the role of the U.S law and consulting firms that were hired by the global soccer body in response to a U.S. Department of Justice probe of corruption in the sport.
In an interview with Reuters on Friday, Sheikh Salman, president of the Asian Football Confederation and one of five candidates running in the Feb. 26 vote to be the next FIFA president, said a close look was needed because he was not fully convinced FIFA was getting enough out of the relationship.
FIFA last year hired U.S. law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan and New York-based crisis and communications adviser Teneo, and the two firms have been working with FIFA’s legal and communications staff at its Zurich headquarters.
Quinn Emanuel is conducting an internal investigation of FIFA and representing the body before U.S. prosecutors. Teneo was hired “to work across operational and reputational priorities,” a FIFA spokeswoman said last year.
“If they are doing a good job, I don’t think anyone will say no, but you have to convince your board as to what are the benefits,” said Sheikh Salman, a member of Bahrain’s ruling royal family.
“If there is a role, a positive role for them, then that’s fine. If we feel that is too much, then I am sure that we are going to review that,” he said.
Representatives of Quinn Emanuel and Teneo declined to comment on Friday.
Sepp Blatter, who spent 17 years as president of FIFA, was late last year slapped by FIFA with an eight-year ban from the game for ethics violations. Issa Hayatou has been acting president since October, pending the February election.
The current FIFA crisis began last May when the U.S. indicted nine soccer officials and five marketing executives on corruption-related charges. Since then, the investigation has widened and there are now more than 40 people and entities facing charges over $200 million in alleged bribes and kickbacks tied to the marketing of major soccer tournaments and matches around the globe.
Lawyers inside and outside FIFA have steadily gained influence within the organization in the past seven months.
But removing the outside consultants and lawyers would be a risky move for FIFA because the soccer body is relying on them to demonstrate to U.S. prosecutors that it is cooperating with them.
U.S. prosecutors have continued to call FIFA a victim of corrupt individuals, but that status could change at any time. If FIFA were criminally charged, sponsors and other partners might be wary of the risks of doing business with it.
It is not clear how much FIFA is paying the two firms or what their contracts say about possible termination. The London-based Press Association reported last month that legal bills combined with a drop in income from sponsors had led to FIFA’s first annual financial loss since 2001.
Salman said that if he is elected he would consult with FIFA staff before making a decision about the firms that is in the “best interest of the organization.”
Salman’s campaign manifesto outlines a plan to split FIFA into two separately functioning entities: a business operation and a unit focused on football events and development.
The four other FIFA presidential candidates are Jordan Football Association president Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein; former FIFA deputy secretary general Jerome Champagne of France; Gianni Infantino, who is Swiss and the current general secretary of the European soccer body UEFA; and South African businessman Tokyo Sexwale.
(Reporting by Simon Evans in Panama City; Additional reporting by David Ingram in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Martin Howell)