Warner leaves FIFA with image tarnished

GENEVA (AP) — Once sought for his support by Nelson Mandela and Britain’s Prince William, FIFA Vice President Jack Warner’s time at the heart of international soccer is over.

His 28-year stretch among the most powerful men in the world’s most popular sport ended Monday amid an election bribery scandal — with his image tarnished but without having been found guilty of wrongdoing.

By choosing to resign from all soccer duties, the president of CONCACAF and the Caribbean Football Union ensured that FIFA closed its ongoing investigation into his part in alleged bribing of CFU leaders in his native Trinidad last month during the world governing body’s presidential campaign.

That means that for Warner, “the presumption of innocence is maintained,” FIFA said.

The Trinidad and Tobago government minister therefore walks away in full possession of his political career, for now. The island’s police had expressed interest in receiving any evidence FIFA unearthed.

In a statement, Warner said he “arrived at the decision to withdraw from FIFA affairs in order to spare FIFA, CONCACAF and, in particular, CFU and its membership, from further acrimony and divisiveness arising from this and related issues.”

However, FIFA warned that its probe stays closed only for as long as he stays in soccer exile.

Warner still is required as a witness while FIFA’s hired team of former FBI agents gathers evidence against failed presidential candidate Mohamed bin Hammam. Also facing a full ethics committee inquiry are two CFU staffers, who allegedly helped hand out the brown envelopes stuffed with $40,000 in $100 notes to Caribbean officials who sat through the Qatari official’s election pitch in Port of Spain on May 10.

That Warner effectively dodged his day in court will not surprise veteran FIFA-watchers.

The 68-year-old confederation boss has often been connected to alleged World Cup ticket scams and financial misdeeds, but always emerged relatively unscathed.

When FIFA found that Warner’s family-owned firm overcharged Trinidad and Tobago fans for ticket and travel deals to watch the national team play at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, he was merely censured. The family was ordered to pay $1 million to an international children’s aid charity, though FIFA has never stated if the money was paid in full.

Warner derived power from keeping tight control on the 35 votes allocated to FIFA members in the North and Central American, and Caribbean confederation, whose influence off the field seemed to outweigh performances on it.

His insistence that CONCACAF united as a bloc — holding more than 15 percent of FIFA’s electoral strength — ensured respect from Sepp Blatter, who has often talked during his 13-year FIFA presidency of their close working relationship.

Blatter already was secretary general in 1983 when Warner joined FIFA’s executive committee — the exclusive 24-man club which chooses World Cup hosts and whose votes are coveted by heads of state and royalty alike. Warner’s power-broking role increased on becoming CONCACAF president in 1990.

Even Mandela was required to visit Trinidad seeking support for South Africa’s World Cup bid.

Last year in Zurich, Warner put an arm around Prince William’s shoulder and promised to back England’s doomed 2018 campaign. Two days later, Warner voted for Russia.

Blatter and Bin Hammam’s battle for CONCACAF votes plunged Warner and FIFA into their most severe corruption crisis.

While wooing both candidates, Warner appeared to overplay his hand with Chuck Blazer, his American cohort at CONCACAF for two decades and FIFA executive committee colleague.

Warner defied Blazer’s advice and brought CFU members to meet Bin Hammam in a May 10-11 conference in Port of Spain.

After delegates told Blazer that they were individually offered $40,000 cash for “development projects,” the U.S. representative in FIFA’s executive committee gathered an evidence dossier which sparked an explosive chain of events.

Suriname official Louis Giskus joined a growing band of Caribbean whistle-blowers, revealing that gift-giving was part of FIFA culture and that Warner often dealt in cash.

That the latest corruption allegation facing Warner was leveled by a previously close confidante, and his CFU members, made it impossible to wish away.

Previously, Warner disdainfully dismissed accusations of impropriety, even when aimed by a respected Scottish official who said Warner sought personal payment for Trinidad and Tobago’s financial share of a friendly match.

Warner’s own national team players are still embroiled in a legal battle to get their due bonuses for playing at the 2006 World Cup finals.

That case will continue in a Trinidad court, after Warner has left soccer. But is influence may be felt there for a while yet.

On Monday, Warner’s farewell statement to international media was followed within an hour by a supplementary comment seeking to designate a loyal aide, Lisle Austin of Barbados, as his successor leading CONCACAF.

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