October 03, 2015

ZURICH (AP) Clinging to power after rebuffing resignation demands, Sepp Blatter received some respite Saturday when two sponsors declined to join four other FIFA corporate backers in demanding the president of world soccer's governing body goes before the emergency election in February.

In a seemingly coordinated move, Budweiser, Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Visa initiated their strongest interventions as sponsors on Friday in requesting Blatter's immediate exit from FIFA.

The 79-year-old Blatter remains defiant in the face of a criminal investigation into alleged financial wrongdoing, insisting that his departure would not be in the best interests of FIFA as it responds to the corruption crisis by fast-tracking reforms. However, a decision over Blatter's future might be taken out of his own hands if FIFA's ethics committee suspends him.

Blatter's initial recruitment by FIFA in the mid-1970s was assisted by then Adidas boss Horst Dassler, initially to run development programs funded by Coca-Cola.

While the soft drinks firm was the first sponsor on Friday to demand Blatter quickly vacates FIFA's Zurich headquarters, Adidas is remaining more loyal - for now - with a statement that did not reference the embattled leader of world soccer.

''FIFA must implement fundamental changes for the sake of football,'' Adidas told The Associated Press. ''Therefore, the initiated reform process must continue quickly and transparently.''

Adidas, which has provided the match ball for every World Cup since 1970, has a deal with FIFA through 2030.

Kia, which has sponsored FIFA with corporate affiliate Hyundai since 1999, would also not discuss Blatter's future.

''We at Kia do not have any comment at the present time regarding Sepp Blatter or our current FIFA sponsorship status,'' the South Korean firm said.

Kia didn't respond when asked if that meant its FIFA deal, which runs through 2022, is no longer certain.

Russian state-controlled gas company Gazprom, which has signed up as a FIFA sponsor for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

Kia and Gazprom did not attend an August meeting at FIFA with sponsors which was initiated following the arrest of seven officials two days before the FIFA Congress in May.

But four big American brands have waited until now to reveal that they have lost patience with FIFA's leader of 17 years. They did not threaten to withdraw their sponsorship after Blatter quickly snubbed their resignation pleas.

Soft drinks firm Coca-Cola and fast food giant McDonald's both said Friday that the FIFA reform process lacked credibility with Blatter still in power.

Visa, which has a FIFA deal through the 2022 World Cup, said ''no meaningful reform can be made under FIFA's existing leadership.''

Brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev, whose Budweiser branding has appeared on advertising signage in World Cup stadiums since 1986, denounced Blatter's continued employment at FIFA as an ''obstacle in the reform process.''

Former FIFA anti-corruption adviser Mark Pieth questions why the quartet of sponsors is only now voicing concerns about Blatter. Pieth said Coca-Cola in 2011 declined to join his panel that was trying to spearhead reforms of FIFA following a series of corruption scandals.

''The problem is that now suddenly sponsors are coming out of bushes when things are getting relatively easy for them,'' Pieth told the AP. ''They would have been eminently helpful some years ago, starting in 2011 with that process. They could have really added weight to what we had been doing and pushed it further.

''Instead they chose to stay aloof. Now that things are deteriorating, they are suddenly coming out and saying, `It's really bad.'''

Referring to the sudden calls for Blatter's exit, Pieth said: ''You don't beat a dead horse, do you?''

Swiss prosecutors allege that Blatter undervalued World Cup broadcasting contracts for the Caribbean sold to disgraced former FIFA vice president Jack Warner in 2005.

Blatter, who denies any wrongdoing, was also questioned over an allegedly ''disloyal payment'' of 2 million Swiss francs (now $2.04 million) in 2011 from FIFA to UEFA President Michel Platini for work carried out at least nine years earlier.

Platini is being treated as ''between a witness and an accused person'' by Swiss investigators.

Platini has faced questions from European federations about his explanation that he only requested payment in 2011 because FIFA couldn't afford to pay him in full when serving as Blatter's adviser between 1998 and 2002.

Platini, a former player and manager with the French national team, has now received the support of his government.

''He feels like he is clean, and he wanted to say it again in order to reassure me,'' French sports secretary Thierry Braillard was quoted as saying in L'Equipe newspaper after speaking with Platini by telephone.

Platini is the favorite to succeed former mentor Blatter in the Feb. 26 election. Like all candidates facing an Oct. 26 deadline to submit candidacies, Platini has to pass eligibility and integrity checks.

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Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports

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