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Blatter launches impassioned defense of FIFA

Sepp Blatter launched an impassioned defense of FIFA's integrity on Saturday, insisting world soccer's ruling body was not institutionally corrupt.

The 75-year-old FIFA president, who is seeking re-election for a fourth term in a June 1 vote, said he had not received any evidence against six members of FIFA's executive committee, who were last week accused of corruption in a vote to decide the World Cup hosts for 2018 and '22.

Last year, FIFA banned six other officials for improper conduct in the same bidding process for hosting rights following an investigation by British newspaper the Sunday Times.

But speaking during a visit to South Africa, Blatter said FIFA's ethics committee had "adequately" dealt with those problems — and the latest unproven allegations did not constitute corruption.

"I do not accept it when somebody in this room says that FIFA is a corrupt organization. I do not accept that," Blatter said, raising his voice and hammering his fist on a table for emphasis. "FIFA is not a corrupt organization.

"If there is no proven evidence then it is not corruption. Our committee for ethics, they intervened in October in the matters of six people and they made the adequate investigation and the adequate decisions."

Blatter's visit included discussions of the possibility of a first female member of FIFA's executive committee and the success of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. The Swiss was regularly applauded by reporters as well as delegates after meeting with leaders from four of the five regional African soccer federations.

A week ahead of his re-election bid, the four bodies offered their full support to Blatter in his bid for re-election as president of world football.

Blatter is being challenged by Qatar's Mohamed bin Hammam, who was previously believed to have widespread support among Africa's 53 national associations. However, the continent's all-encompassing Confederation of African Football (CAF) has now publicly backed Blatter, who has headed FIFA since 1998.

Blatter, whose appearance at the two-day meeting in Johannesburg was at short notice, said he was not campaigning for votes.

"To be honest, I am not campaigning. I am trying to protect FIFA," he said. "Stop, please, saying FIFA is corrupt. FIFA is not corrupt. Definitely not."

The persistent corruption allegations, however, will ensure the focus leading up to the FIFA presidential vote in Zurich next month is on integrity.

The former chairman of England's Football Association, David Triesman, claimed last week during a British parliamentary inquiry that four FIFA executive committee members engaged in improper conduct during bidding for the 2018 World Cup.

Triesman told British lawmakers that FIFA executive committee members Jack Warner, Nicolas Leoz, Ricardo Teixeira and Worawi Makudi engaged in "improper and unethical" conduct by demanding bribes. All four have denied the claims.

It was also alleged in evidence from the Sunday Times that two African FIFA executives were paid bribes to vote for Qatar's successful 2022 bid in the December ballot.

CAF Football President Issa Hayatou and Ivory Coast's Jacques Anouma — also members of FIFA's executive committee — have also strongly denied any wrongdoing.

Blatter said that an unnamed whistleblower who told the newspaper that Hayatou and Anouma were paid $1.5 million will be interviewed by FIFA on Wednesday.

But FIFA had yet to receive evidence of corruption from English officials, he said, referring to some of the allegations as "attacks" on FIFA.

"There is no evidence. We have asked for evidence and this famous whistleblower will be in FIFA on Wednesday and he will tell us whether there is something or not," Blatter said.

"And the evidences of Lord Triesman, we haven't received them so far. We have asked the English football association to help us ... but for the time being, nothing."

The FA agreed to send its evidence to FIFA while also conducting its own inquiry in the 2018 bidding contest that was won by Russia.

Both organizations plan to release their findings next week ahead of the FIFA presidential election.

Quizzed on his visit to Johannesburg, which was billed as a chance to discuss the legacy of last year's World Cup, Blatter said: "Naturally it will be linked to elections that will take place in one week in Zurich.

"I have received a lot of, let's say, compliments," he said. "Compliments enough to win the election? I don't know."

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Gerald Imray can be reached at http://twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP