FIFA suspended President Sepp Blatter's right-hand man Jerome Valcke on Thursday and ordered an investigation into alleged unethical conduct, throwing world soccer's scandal-scarred governing body into further turmoil.
Mr. Valcke, FIFA's secretary general for the past eight years under the embattled Mr. Blatter, was hours earlier the subject of allegations over a deal for black market sales of tickets to 2014 World Cup matches.
"FIFA today announced that its Secretary General Jerome Valcke has been put on leave and released from his duties effective immediately until further notice," the governing body said in a brief statement which did not specify details.
"Further, FIFA has been made aware of a series of allegations involving the secretary general and has requested a formal investigation by the FIFA Ethics Committee."
A call to Valcke's mobile phone was not answered late Thursday. It was unclear if he was already in Russia where the 1,000-day countdown to the 2018 World Cup kickoff is being marked Friday in Red Square, Moscow.
The 55-year-old Frenchman's main duty is overseeing organization of the world's most-watched sports event which earned FIFA around $5 billion for the 2014 tournament in Brazil.
An alleged deal linked to that World Cup threatens to end Valcke's FIFA career months early. The former television journalist and sports marketing executive has been scheduled to exit on Feb. 26 with Blatter amid American and Swiss investigations of corruption.
Earlier Thursday, a former FIFA ticketing partner made allegations about Valcke supplying top-category tickets to matches in Brazil which were sold at three times face value.
The marketing executive, Benny Alon, also made an unproven allegation that Valcke had been prepared to profit personally from the deal.
Mr. Alon circulated a contract, seen by The Associated Press, to receive 8,750 tickets in the best seats for each World Cup from 2010 to 2018.
The Israeli-American showed journalists copies of email correspondence, also seen by the AP, which appeared to show Valcke referring to potential ticket sales as "my pension fund."
Valcke's lawyer in New York said in a statement his client "unequivocally denies the fabricated and outrageous accusations."
"Mr. Valcke never received or agreed to accept any money or anything else of value from Mr. Alon," wrote Barry Berke of Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel.
Valcke declined comment to the AP earlier Thursday, and said FIFA would issue a statement.
The FIFA ethics committee declined to confirm if an investigation of Valcke is ongoing.
"The panel points out that — as a matter of principle — it will analyze all information that is brought to its attention of its own accord," it said in a statement.
It was unclear who made the decision regarding Valcke, who is Blatter's personal choice as his right-hand man at FIFA headquarters.
Since June, US law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan has advised FIFA and conducted an internal investigation of alleged wrongdoing.
Tall and elegant, Valcke has been one of the most public faces of FIFA in recent years.
The former French TV presenter's readiness to answer questions has been in stark contrast to senior members of FIFA's executive committee who are mostly secretive and often openly hostile to media scrutiny.
Valcke rose to the top administrative job at FIFA soon after being fired in 2006 during a scandal.
As marketing director, he was implicated in misleading World Cup sponsor MasterCard during contract renewal talks.
FIFA and Blatter eventually signed with Visa, provoking a legal suit from Mastercard which football's governing body settled for $90 million.
Valcke's conduct and business ethics were severely criticized by a New York judge who heard the case.
FIFA fired Valcke and other marketing officials involved in the deal, then re-hired him several months later as secretary general after Blatter was re-elected president.
FIFA has been in crisis since the federal investigations of bribery and corruption implicating senior soccer officials were revealed in May.
Valcke was identified as having processed transfers of $10 million from FIFA accounts which were alleged by the U.S. Department of Justice to be bribes for CONCACAF officials to support South Africa's successful bid to host the 2010 World Cup.
FIFA and Valcke said the payments were authorized by then-finance committee chairman Julio Grondona, after being requested by South African officials to be paid from their tournament organization funds.
Still, Blatter announced his planned resignation on June 2, the day after FIFA and Valcke's role in the affair was revealed.
Blatter has said FIFA's troubles stem from the December 2010 decision to award Russia and Qatar hosting rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, respectively.
Valcke has been blamed for urging FIFA in 2008 to run a dual bidding contest, in order to secure long-term commercial security amid economic downturn.
However, the twin blockbuster contests fueled allegations of deal-making and voting pacts, which are now being investigated by Switzerland's attorney-general in a case likely to take several years.
Valcke is scheduled to leave FIFA at the end of February with Blatter, and has acknowledged that the next FIFA president should appoint his own secretary general to have a fresh start for a new administration.
Since 2007, Valcke's main responsibility has been to oversee contracts and the troubled preparations for two World Cups. Both events in South Africa and Brazil were played with few organizational hitches and exceeded expectations.
In July, at the 2018 World Cup draw in St. Petersburg, Russia, Valcke reflected on his time in office.
"As the head of the administration I can be proud of what FIFA has done," he said. "The administration, I don't think, has ever been part of any of the stories which are around FIFA, including all the commercial agreements we have signed from 2007 to 2015."