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At conference on sports ethics, FIFA's own problems grab the spotlight

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ZURICH — Corruption, secrecy, and a soccer world seeming awash with gifts of watches: there is no shortage of issues to discuss when FIFA decides to talk about ethics.

Soccer's governing body hosted a conference Friday aimed at setting ethical standards in sports, although it was its own problems that seemed to grab the spotlight in its glass-and-slate headquarters in Zurich.

An event that opened with FIFA President Sepp Blatter hailing the body's efforts to crack down on corruption was more notable for the rare insight it gave into an ethics probe that is key to the scandal-hit body's aim of repairing its damaged image.

For the first time, the American prosecutor and German judge tasked with looking into claims that FIFA's executive committee acted corruptly in awarding the 2018 and 2022 World Cup to Russia and Qatar talked openly about the probe.

They didn't reveal any investigative details — they would be kicked off the case for that — but raised some eyebrows by pushing back the expected deadline for verdicts and criticizing FIFA's secrecy rules that prevent them from disclosing more.

Ethics judge Joachim Eckert said he likely won't have his verdicts ready until early next year — rather than within weeks as expected — and said that regardless of his findings he would not be able to remove either host or order re-votes.

"That is not our job," Eckert told reporters after his keynote address, suggesting his power was limited to sanctioning members of FIFA's much-criticized executive committee.

Instead, it would be up to the FIFA executive committee to decide on a re-do of the 2010 vote, an option that could bring the United States back as a 2022 candidate, and would likely provoke legal action from Qatar.

Later, FIFA prosecutor Michael Garcia said he would like to disclose more details of his investigation but complained about the body's secrecy rules that keep his reports sealed.

"I think that is a disservice in many ways because people are skeptical and want information," Garcia told the conference.

PHOTO: FILE - In this Friday, July 27, 2012 file photo, Chairmen of the two chambers of the new FIFA Ethics Committee Michael Garcia, left, from the US and Joachim Eckert, right, from Germany attend a press conference, at the Home of FIFA in Zurich, Switzerland. FIFA ethics judge Joachim Eckert is unlikely to reach final decisions in the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding corruption probe until early next year. The German judge also suggested on Friday, Sept. 19, 2014, it was not his job to remove Russia or Qatar as hosts or order a re-vote based on FIFA prosecutor Michael Garcia's investigation. (AP Photo/Keystone, Walter Bieri, File)
FILE - In this Friday, July 27, 2012 file photo, Chairmen of the two chambers of the new FIFA Ethics Committee Michael Garcia, left, from the US and Joachim Eckert, right, from Germany attend a press conference, at the Home of FIFA in Zurich, Switzerland. FIFA ethics judge Joachim Eckert is unlikely to reach final decisions in the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bidding corruption probe until early next year. The German judge also suggested on Friday, Sept. 19, 2014, it was not his job to remove Russia or Qatar as hosts or order a re-vote based on FIFA prosecutor Michael Garcia's investigation. (AP Photo/Keystone, Walter Bieri, File)

However, the former U.S. Attorney did insist the probe was conducted so tightly that only he, Eckert and their deputies had seen the 430-page first draft of his report.

Fallout from Garcia's latest ruling caused upset Friday elsewhere in Switzerland.

In Geneva, UEFA President Michel Platini had some choice words for Garcia's request that FIFA board members should return luxury watches gifted by Brazil's soccer federation at the World Cup, or face disciplinary action.

FIFA officials are only allowed to accept gifts of "symbolic or trivial value" and a $26,600 watch does not fit the bill. Senior officials from the federations competing at the World Cup also received the gifts which Garcia wants to turn into a $1.6 million donation for a Brazilian social project.

Platini said he would keep the watch, and make a donation to a charity instead, adding defiantly that: "I'm a well-educated person. I don't return gifts."

Platini also questioned FIFA's timing on an issue he thought could have been resolved in June.

To add to fodder to critics, FIFA also acknowledged Friday that it spent $140,000 on 750 Swiss watches to give delegates at congress in Sao Paulo on the eve of the World Cup. Blatter worked for the watch manufacturer before joining FIFA in 1975.

Still, Blatter used his speech to point out that FIFA has taken unprecedented steps in setting up an independent ethics committee.

"We are the only sports organization which has this independent body for ethics, nobody else, not even the IOC (International Olympic Committee)," Blatter said.

The conference itself, dubbed the World Summit on Ethics in Sports, was meant to bring together leaders from politics, business and academics to "define the role of sports in solving societal problems and to celebrate best practice examples of ethical sportsmanship."

Blatter made no reference to the World Cup investigation in his speech, or his own meeting Thursday with the visiting Emir of Qatar.

When Eckert was asked whether he met the Emir, the judge offered a smile and a simple "no comment."

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