On the eve of one of the biggest sports events ever staged in Canada, the women's soccer World Cup, the spectre of the FIFA corruption scandal dominated a tournament-opening press conference in Vancouver on Thursday.
The scene was, at times, surreal. After 12 minutes of opening remarks, a PR woman from FIFA asked journalists not to pose questions about the scandal. The first five questions then focused specifically on the scandal. The second question, asked in French, was whether Canada paid bribes to win this year's World Cup.
"This World Cup?" responded Victor Montagliani, president of the Canadian Soccer Association, in French. "No. Absolutely not."
Canada won the right to host the World Cup in 2011. It was the only bidder. A rival, Zimbabwe, had earlier pulled out.
The journalist, in French, pressed Mr. Montagliani on how it can be assured that Canada is clean. Another journalist requested that the question be asked in English. FIFA had made only a handful of translation devices available in a small hotel conference room packed tight with upwards of 100 journalists.
"His question," said Mr. Montagliani in English, "was when we bid for the World Cup was there any … comment dit-on?" – how do you say?
"Bribes," said the journalist in English from the audience.
"Yeah, thank you," said Mr. Montagliani. "When we bid for this World Cup, did the Canadian Soccer Association engage in any improprieties to obtain it, and I said, 'Absolutely not.'"
The press conference spiralled from there. The FIFA PR woman, Ségolène Valentin, repeatedly asked journalists to focus their question on the World Cup and not the scandal. After the fifth question, which was about Mr. Montagliani's relationship with Jeffrey Webb, one of the most senior officials arrested last week in Zurich, Ms. Valentin said: "Can we start on women's football?"
Mr. Webb, indicted last week, had been president of CONCACAF, in charge of soccer in North and Central America and the Caribbean, and FIFA vice-president. Mr. Montagliani, in a magazine profile last September, cited Mr. Webb as an inspiration, as well as Jérôme Valcke, the FIFA secretary general who is now accused of brokering bribes. Mr. Valcke was supposed to be at the Vancouver press conference on Thursday but FIFA cancelled his appearance.
Mr. Montagliani didn't state his relationship with Mr. Webb but saluted Mr. Webb's work on anti-racism and improving FIFA governance. He said the allegations, if true, were not acceptable. Mr. Montagliani concluded by saying: "I pray for his family."
Near the end of the 44-minute press conference, after Ms. Valentin said, "We need to finish with a positive note," Mr. Montagliani was asked again about Mr. Webb. Mr. Montagliani said he only knew Mr. Webb through FIFA work and said Canada's distance from the scandal is "quite a bit."
The journalist asked a follow-up question, and Mr. Montagliani's response was sharp. He said journalists had previously venerated Mr. Webb in stories.
"You need to maybe look in the mirror a little bit and maybe not put people on a pedestal so you that can whack the hell out of them after," said Mr. Montagliani.
Beyond the scandal, Tatjana Haenni, head of women's soccer for FIFA, said she believed FIFA needs more women in senior decision-making roles.
Interest in the tournament in Canada has climbed steadily. Almost one million tickets have been sold to games that will be held in Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal and Moncton.
The question of the playing surface also arose, controversial artificial turf rather than grass, as is standard for the men's World Cup. New turf has been installed at BC Place in Vancouver, which hosts nine games, including the championship game. The installation was completed in the past week, but it takes at least six weeks for it to be properly ready, after the World Cup is over. Some players in a Major League Soccer game at BC Place on Saturday were critical. "Slippery," said one goalkeeper.
Mr. Montagliani said the BC Place turf "will be in condition it needs to be" and claimed that MLS players on Saturday gave it "rave reviews."
But the press conference was dominated by questions about FIFA and the scandal. At the 30-minute mark, a journalist asked Mr. Montagliani about whether the Canadian Soccer Association supported a new vote on the controversial World Cups award to Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022.
Mr. Montagliani first looked to his right, at Ms. Valentin, who indicated it was his question to answer.
He said Canada is a country that respects the process, including the previous votes, and continued: "We will respect the process. And if there is a legitimate call for that, not just a call based on speculation, but a legitimate call, where the member nations have to act, and we're one of the 209 member nations, we will then act accordingly."