By David Ingram and Simon Evans
(Reuters) - FIFA on Thursday disowned comments made by the head of its reform committee, who had questioned why American authorities were investigating corruption in soccer, which he described as "just an ethnic sport for girls in schools" in the U.S.
The comments by Francois Carrard, the recently appointed independent chairman of FIFA's 15-person reform committee, were published on Sunday by the Swiss newspaper La Matin Dimanche. They quickly drew criticism from some of those seeking robust reforms of FIFA, who accused Carrard of not taking his new job seriously.
Soccer's world governing body said in a statement to Reuters that Carrard was not speaking on the organization's behalf. "Any comments by individuals associated with FIFA with respect to the ongoing investigations and the state of U.S. football should be seen as personal views and do not reflect the views or position of FIFA," it said.
As well as questioning why U.S. authorities spend time on the probe given his perception that soccer has a very limited appeal to Americans, Carrard said FIFA President Sepp Blatter had been treated unfairly and that corruption in the sport was limited to only a few rogue officials.
U.S. authorities in May announced the indictment of nine current and former soccer officials, many of whom had FIFA positions, and five sports marketing executives. Prosecutors said the 14 corrupted the sport by agreeing to more than $150 million in bribes and kickbacks for media and marketing rights.
Carrard's comments and the sharp response from FIFA's Zurich headquarters demonstrate the deep rifts that exist within the organization and its affiliated bodies, indicating that making any radical changes in FIFA will be a very difficult process.
FIFA also said in its response that it sees the ongoing investigations by U.S. and Swiss authorities as key to its reform plans and that it was cooperating with authorities.
The statement continued: "The growth of football and the increased participation levels in the U.S. have been tremendous and demonstrate the nation's passion for the game. FIFA continues to work tirelessly to support the global development of the game in partnership with all of our 209 member associations."
While soccer is often not seen as a top American sport, it has been gaining popularity. The U.S. won the Women's World Cup this summer for the third time, and the U.S. men's team got to the final 16 in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Carrard's office said he was out of the office and would not be speaking to media before a reform committee meeting scheduled for Sept. 2.
Blatter has not been charged with any wrongdoing. He announced his intention to resign after a special meeting to elect a successor in February.
Carrard, a 77-year-old Swiss lawyer who is also a former director general of the International Olympic Committee, has said the FIFA reform committee will present their findings to FIFA's congress at the same February meeting.
Last week, FIFA discussed reforms with some of its leading commercial sponsors at a closed meeting at its headquarters. The partners, including AB InBev, Adidas, Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Visa, said they used the meeting to "reiterate our expectations for robust reform."
U.S. authorities have said their investigation is continuing and that additional people could be indicted. A separate Swiss criminal investigation into possible corruption in soccer is targeting the award of the World Cup hosting rights to Russia for 2018 and to Qatar for 2022, although Swiss law may significantly constrain what prosecutors there can do.
(Reporting by David Ingram in New York and Simon Evans in Miami; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Martin; Howell)