ZURICH – FIFA suspended senior executives Mohamed bin Hammam and Jack Warner because of bribery allegations Sunday while exonerating President Sepp Blatter in the gravest corruption crisis facing soccer's governing body.
Blatter now is in line to be re-elected unopposed to a fourth term Wednesday. His only challenger, Bin Hammam, withdrew his candidacy hours before being excluded from all soccer activities by FIFA's ethics committee.
The panel said there was sufficient evidence to further investigate allegations that bin Hammam and Warner offered $40,000 bribes to delegates at a Caribbean soccer association meeting on May 10-11 in Trinidad.
The payments were allegedly made to secure votes for bin Hammam, a Qatari who heads Asia's soccer confederation, in his campaign to unseat Blatter. The evidence was compiled by U.S. executive committee member Chuck Blazer.
"I regret what has happened in the last few days and weeks," Blatter said in a statement. "FIFA's image has suffered a great deal as a result, much to the disappointment of FIFA itself and all football fans."
FIFA said bin Hammam and Warner, a FIFA vice president from Trinidad, will now face a full FIFA inquiry. If found guilty, they could be expelled from FIFA and banned for life from all soccer matters.
Bin Hammam has denied wrongdoing and said the suspension is "unfortunate but this is where we are — this is FIFA." Warner called his hearing "biased" and an abuse of process.
"We are satisfied that there is a case to be answered," Petrus Damaseb, deputy chairman of the ethics committee, said at a news conference at FIFA headquarters.
Two officials from the Caribbean Football Union, Debbie Minguell and Jason Sylvester, were also suspended over the bribery allegations.
Bin Hammam had asked the panel to investigate Blatter on grounds that he knew of alleged bribe attempts and did nothing about it. But Damaseb said the five-man panel received "lots of confirmation from every individual conceivable" that there was no evidence to take action against Blatter, who has been in office since 1998.
"Is there a reason I should not believe him?" said Damaseb, a Namibian judge. "You can disagree with the decision I have taken. I can just give you the reasoning behind our decision."
FIFA stressed that despite the turmoil the election will proceed Wednesday during a meeting of its 208 national members.
"I recognize that the timing couldn't be worse," FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke said. "But what happens, happens."
With FIFA's reputation battered, Valcke acknowledged this was a watershed moment for the organization.
"It's sad — definitely there is a need for change," Valcke said. "FIFA must make the necessary changes so that the institution has systems in place to avoid that something like this happens again."
Warner, president of the regional soccer body representing North and Central America and the Caribbean, had warned that a "football tsunami" would be unleashed after the findings of the FIFA panel were released.
The crisis was sparked by Blazer, whose evidence file implicated his executive committee colleagues. Blazer, Warner's longtime No. 2 at CONCACAF, spent more than an hour at FIFA headquarters.
Bin Hammam, who decided to run for president after helping Qatar secure the 2022 World Cup, spoke of "baseless allegations" against him.
"Recent events have left me hurt and disappointed — on a professional and personal level," bin Hammam wrote on his personal website. "It saddens me that standing up for the causes that I believed in has come at a great price — the degradation of FIFA's reputation. This is not what I had in mind for FIFA and this is unacceptable.
"I cannot allow the name that I loved to be dragged more and more in the mud because of competition between two individuals. The game itself and the people who love it around the world must come first. It is for this reason that I announce my withdrawal from the presidential election."
Bin Hammam and Warner, a 28-year FIFA executive, are accused of arranging bribes for up to 25 presidential voters from the Caribbean Football Union.
Bin Hammam has acknowledged paying for travel, accommodations and conference costs, but denies vote-buying. He implicated Blatter's camp in a plot to remove him from the election, and fought back by bringing the FIFA president into the ethics case.
According to bin Hammam's complaint, Blatter broke FIFA "duty of disclosure" rules because he was apparently aware through Warner that payments had been arranged and "had no issue."
The evidence was compiled by John Collins, a former U.S. federal prosecutor and now a member of FIFA's legal committee.
Separately Sunday, FIFA said four executive committee members accused of World Cup bidding corruption have been cleared of wrongdoing by the English Football Association.
David Triesman, head of England's 2018 bid until last May, told British lawmakers this month that Warner, Nicolas Leoz, Ricardo Teixeira and Worawi Makudi engaged in "improper and unethical" conduct.
Blatter succeeded Brazil's Joao Havelange, defeating then UEFA President Lennart Johansson in 1998. Blatter acknowledges that claims of vote-buying surrounded his first election but has always denied involvement.
He faced a challenge in 2002 from Issa Hayatou, Africa's soccer president. Blatter was re-elected unopposed for a third term in 2007.