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FIFA chief blasts violent fans, defends beleaguered referees

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Soccer's boss condemned the thugs who have surrounded the World Cup with street violence, saying they were closer to mad bombers than misdirected fans.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter said the attacks on police and local residents outside matches involving teams from England and Germany were appalling reminders that even the world's biggest sports event can't escape the world's ills.While the street fights and cafe bashing by English fans over three days in Marseille was the longest incident, Blatter had special contempt Saturday for Germans who rampaged through the northern city of Lens last week, leaving a police officer in a coma.

"We have seen the incidents in Marseille and the extremely serious incidents in Lens. They were closer to acts of terrorism than acts of hooliganism," Blatter said. "This violence is not of football, it is of society as a whole. These people use the World Cup as a launching pad."

The newly elected head of soccer's world body praised French authorities for their efforts to combat the violence. He said the games themselves had been free of fan troubles in the stadiums through the first round, which ended Friday.

"I hope this is what we will see from now on, with no more individuals disrupting the event," Blatter said. "I hope we will have the same joy and enthusiasm in the stadiums that we have had."

In a 90-minute news conference, Blatter also:

- Defended World Cup referees against criticism of inconsistency and incompetence. "Leave the referees alone!" he said. "Leave them to do their work, and they will do it properly."

Blatter said regional soccer leaders from Africa who complained their teams were victims of racial bias by officials should concentrate instead on getting their players ready for international matches. "The decisions made must be accepted in a sporting spirit," he said.

- Praised the level of play so far in the Cup and predicted there would be "no miracles this time" when the champion is crowned July 12. He said he was most surprised by the play of Paraguay, one of five Latin American teams to reach the round of 16.

- Encouraged African countries to come up with solid, detailed plans for staging the World Cup in 2006. But he stopped short of endorsing any of the African bids - from Nigeria, Egypt, South Africa and Morocco - in the race.

- Sympathized with fans who had been duped in ticket scams but said FIFA could do nothing to help, not even in cases involving one of its licensed ticket outlets, Prime Sports International. The president of the U.S.-based company, Douglas Knittle, has been placed under investigation by French authorities for alleged fraud involving some 15,000 missing tickets, judicial sources said.

- Announced a special meeting of FIFA's executive board next month to start installing the pieces of his new regime. That includes a restructuring of management to put the president and board more in control of federation policy. The July 9 meeting also will mark the start of the search for a successor to Blatter as general secretary, an area Blatter said was a "huge question mark."

Violence by fans has followed soccer for decades, most prevalently in Europe, where the instigators have become known as hool-i-gans. English and German groups are the most notorious and grabbed the spotlight with their World Cup rampages.

On Friday night, however, a police show of force in Lens kept order among some 30,000 English supporters after their team's 2-0 victory over Colombia. There were scattered troubles, but nothing like the earlier cases, and Blatter said he was certain that calm would continue when England meets Argentina in the second round Tuesday in Saint-Etienne, a match with a history of political and sports flashpoints.

"We are very positive," he said. "The police of the two countries already have met. They want to make sure it will be a football festival, not a stage for a bunch of hooligans."

Britain and Argentina fought a war in the early 1980s over the Falkland Islands, and reports before the tournament said any meeting between the teams could be a target for hooligans. There also is lingering bitterness over the 1986 tournament, when Argentina eliminated England with the help of Diego Maradona's "Hand of God" goal.