WASHINGTON: United States soccer chiefs knew or should have known about widespread corruption at FIFA, a US senator said Wednesday, calling for urgent reform at the highest levels of football.
Richard Blumenthal was addressing a Senate subcommittee hearing scrutinizing FIFA and the US Soccer Federation, after US authorities in May indicted 14 people -- including top football officials -- over tens of millions of dollars of alleged bribes for media rights contracts.
Swiss authorities are also investigating the hugely controversial award of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 tournament to Qatar.
"The facts show that there had to be either wilful ignorance or blatant incompetence on the part of many of the members of this organization (FIFA), and that's true of US Soccer as well," said Blumenthal.
"They either knew about it or they should have known about it -- and I am not sure which is worse."
Blumenthal, a Democrat, told the subcommittee on consumer protection that FIFA, football's world governing body, was akin to "a mafia-style syndicate.
"The only hesitation in using that term is that it is almost insulting to the mafia because mafia would never have been so blatant, overt and arrogant in its corruption."
He added: "The question is: who knew about the criminal wrongdoing? When did they know it? And what did they know and why did they not act more quickly?
"Those are the questions the US Soccer Federation has to answer today."
United States football chiefs have found themselves under pressure after Chuck Blazer was identified as a central figure in the scandal engulfing world football.
Blazer is the one-time powerbroker of North American football and a former ally of beleaguered FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who has said he will step down in light of the multiple allegations against the organization.
Blazer, who worked undercover for US prosecutors to help snare his former comrades at FIFA, has acknowledged to US investigators that he took more than $11 million in bribes from 2005 to 2010.
However, US Soccer Federation CEO Dan Flynn, called to be a subcommittee witness, said he "knew nothing" about corruption roiling FIFA and regional body CONCACAF for the best part of a decade.
He admitted to "levels of discomfort" on several occasions in the past, but pointed out that Blazer had "not been involved with US soccer since 1986."
Grilled repeatedly by senators -- at one point Flynn stumbled over his words and sought advice from an aide -- as to how much he or his US colleagues knew about the alleged wrongdoing, he said: "My focus and my day-to-day focus is to stay focused on the domestic side of our business.
"I just didn't have any knowledge (of corruption) and nor did anybody I worked with have any knowledge."
Also among the witnesses was veteran British investigative journalist and filmmaker Andrew Jennings, who has spent years looking into FIFA.
He did not mince his words, branding FIFA "low-lifes" and "sleazebags."
He also weighed in on US Soccer chiefs, saying that they "had to know" about graft at FIFA and CONCACAF, "but they looked the other way."
"Corruption is not a game," concluded Blumenthal.
"It is deadly serious, it is criminal and it betrays the trust of fans.
"US Soccer had a responsibility to know. Either it knew or it should have known."