Four of Fifa's leading sponsors – Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Visa and Budweiser – have demanded that its embattled president, Sepp Blatter, step down immediately in the face of a continuing corruption crisis.
The dramatic intervention on Friday night from four of Fifa’s biggest backers hugely increases the pressure on the 79-year-old after Swiss prosecutors last week opened criminal proceedings against him.
The four American companies have been under pressure themselves to take a stand since May, when the US Department of Justice alleged a "World Cup of fraud" and charged 14 people, including nine current or former football officials, with money laundering, racketeering and other offences.
The move came seven days after Blatter was accused of making a "disloyal payment" of £1.3m to Uefa's president, Michel Platini, in 2011 and handing a World Cup TV contract to the disgraced former Fifa vice-president Jack Warner for below market value.
The Fifa president, who denies wrongdoing, last night refused to stand down and is determined to remain in post until next February.
But the Football Association chairman, Greg Dyke, dubbed the intervention a "game changer".
He said: “I think this is the big moment. It doesn’t matter what Blatter says, if the people who pay for Fifa want change, they will get change.
“What matters is not just that Blatter goes, because he was going to go anyway. What matters is that they want to see a proper, comprehensive reform process.”
Coca-Cola is one of five top-tier Fifa global partners who contribute a large proportion of the $1.62 billion it earns from sponsors every four years.
It said: "For the benefit of the game the Coca-Cola company is calling for Fifa president Joseph Blatter to step down immediately so that a credible and sustainable reform process can begin in earnest."
The soft drinks giant, which alongside Adidas is the governing body’s oldest sponsor, added: “Every day that passes, the image and reputation of Fifa continues to tarnish. Fifa needs comprehensive and urgent reform and that can only be accomplished through a truly independent approach.”
In a coordinated strategy the financial services company Visa, also a top-tier sponsor with a contract through to the 2022 World Cup, added its weight to the calls for Blatter to resign immediately.
After the $2.5 billion poured into its coffers by broadcasters, sponsors wanting to attach their brand to the world’s biggest sporting event are Fifa’s next biggest contributor to revenues of $5.7 billion over four years.
McDonald’s, a second-tier sponsor, said: “It would be in the best interest of the game for Fifa president Sepp Blatter to step down immediately so that the reform process can proceed with the credibility that is needed.”
Budweiser's owner, Anheuser-Busch InBev, later became the fourth major sponsor to call for Blatter's head. A spokesman said: "It would be appropriate for Mr Blatter to step down as we believe his continued presence to be an obstacle in the reform process."
Since US prosecutors launched dawn raids in Zurich in May on the eve of Fifa’s Congress, Mr Blatter and the organisation he has shaped in his own image have been in meltdown.
He won re-election days after those arrests but was forced to promise to stand down in early June. Since then he has clung to his plan to leave in February in the vain belief that he will able to salvage some of his reputation in the meantime by introducing long overdue reforms.
Jaimie Fuller, of the campaign group New Fifa Now, said the clear demand from sponsors marked a major development.
He said: “Never before have we seen a sponsor of an international sports federation take such drastic action as to call for an independent reform commission, let alone demand the president step down in the face of a criminal investigation.
“The drastic nature of the call stresses the extreme problems faced by Fifa and should show everyone how it is teetering on the abyss.”
Fifa’s malaise has increased in the past week as Platini, the Frenchman who was favourite to succeed Mr Blatter, has been drawn into the crisis. He, too, denies wrongdoing.
Platini was questioned under Swiss law as somewhere “between a witness and an accused person” as to why the £1.3 million payment was made nine years after his contract with Fifa ended.
Earlier this week he told AFP that Mr Blatter had said Fifa did not have the money to pay him at the time and he had not got around to claiming the cash until February 2011, two months before Mr Blatter was re-elected.
However, Fifa’s accounts show that it made a surplus of 155m Swiss Francs during the period from 1999 to 2002.
In the absence of the secretary general Jérôme Valcke, who has been suspended pending an investigation into claims that World Cup tickets were resold above face value, the organisation is, in effect, being run by lawyers on a day-to-day basis.
It was Mr Valcke who met a coalition of sponsors in the wake of the May meltdown to try to reassure them that Fifa was serious about reform. The lead role taken by Coca-Cola will be seen as of particular significance, given its central role in the Fifa story.
Back in 1975 the then newly recruited Mr Blatter led Fifa’s global development programme, funded by Coca-Cola. Dubbed Project One, its purpose was to spread football to all corners of the world and turn the soft drink into a global brand.
Patrick Nally, the British marketer who helped devise the programme, told Bloomberg: "The whole foundation of Fifa and Blatter is built on the foundation of the marketing skills of the Coca-Cola company. No Coke, no Blatter."
If Mr Blatter was to stand down, Fifa's long-standing vice-president Issa Hayatou – himself the target of various historical allegations – would step up before February's election.
Although some of Fifa’s sponsors have previously called on Fifa to restore its credibility, in July Coca-Cola became the first to advocate wholesale reform.
The Guardian revealed it had sent a letter to the International Trade Union Confederation following a New Fifa Now campaign to try to force sponsors to take responsibility for driving change at Fifa.
Fifa recently reorganised its sponsorship portfolio. Adidas, Visa, Coca-Cola, Gazprom and Hyundai are top-level Fifa partners while Budweiser and McDonald's are known as World Cup partners.
The Swiss attorney general Michael Lauber has said that its investigation – which began as a probe into the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups but has since widened – has not even reached half-time.
Swiss prosecutors have already seized on property in the Alps suspected of being linked to money laundering, as well as 11TB of data and 121 suspect banking transactions.
The US attorney general Loretta Lynch has also said its investigations continue and vowed that more arrests will follow.
Mr Blatter, for his part, insists he is going nowhere. His US-based lawyer Richard Cullen said: "While Coca-Cola is a valued sponsor of Fifa, Mr Blatter respectfully disagrees with its position and believes firmly that his leaving office now would not be in the best interest of Fifa nor would it advance the process of reform. And, therefore, he will not resign."