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Fight to unseat Blatter as FIFA president heats up as Europe attacks on 2 fronts

01/28/2015 01:19 EST | Updated 03/30/2015 05:59 EDT
GENEVA - The fight to remove Sepp Blatter from the most powerful job in world soccer intensified in Europe on Wednesday.

In a surprise entry to the FIFA presidential contest, Portuguese great Luis Figo — the 2001 world player of the year — claimed the required support of five national federations by the entry deadline Thursday.

"I look at the reputation of FIFA right now and I don't like it. Football deserves better," the former Barcelona and Real Madrid playmaker said in a statement without giving detailed campaign plans.

Meanwhile, Dutch federation president Michael van Praag launched his campaign in Amsterdam, promising to modernize FIFA, expand the World Cup with more places for non-European countries and give Blatter an advisory role.

FIFA "is doing badly and has lost all credibility," said Van Praag, who famously told Blatter last year in Brazil that people no longer took him seriously. "FIFA is constantly under suspicion. Of conflicts of interest, of nepotism, of corruption."

Van Praag said he had no animosity toward Blatter and spoke with him to offer a position running a foundation helping less privileged children.

"In fact, I like him a lot as a person," the 67-year-old Dutch official said. "However, someone who has led an organization for so many years and who has become the personification of its poor image, can no longer be the face of a modernization operation or of a 'new FIFA.'"

Blatter's opponents also include FIFA Vice-President Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan.

Two more possible candidates from France, former FIFA official and longtime Blatter ally Jerome Champagne and former player David Ginola, seek to file nominations by Thursday evening's deadline.

Still, Blatter is strongly favoured to win a May 29 vote by the 209 FIFA member federations, despite bribery and financial scandals which implicated several of his executive committee colleagues.

Soccer leaders worldwide have shown little desire for change during Blatter's 17-year reign overseeing spectacular commercial success for the World Cup. FIFA has cash reserves of $1.5 billion and distributes increasing bonuses to members.

Figo has little experience of sports administration, but said a mood for change exists.

"I have seen the image of FIFA deteriorate, and as I speak to many people in football — to players, managers and association presidents — so many of those people have told me that something has to be done," the 42-year-old Portuguese said.

Figo's entry into the race complicates Europe's strategy, potentially splitting support for him and Van Praag among the 53 UEFA voters, including some traditional Blatter loyalists. UEFA is the only one of FIFA's six continental bodies actively opposing Blatter.

Figo was UEFA's ambassador for the Champions League final in Lisbon last year, and Van Praag is an elected member of UEFA's executive board which met on Monday.

That's when Van Praag announced his bid, saying he was running because no "credible challenger" had emerged. On Wednesday he further distanced himself from UEFA when saying his campaign was "my initiative."

The former president of four-time European champion Ajax is the first contender to reveal his nominees: Belgium, Faeroe Islands, Romania, Sweden and Scotland, plus his native Netherlands.

The need for a European candidate was created last August when UEFA president Michel Platini opted not to stand against Blatter, while encouraging rivals for his 78-year-old former mentor.

Platini's spokesman Pedro Pinto welcomed Figo's entry.

"Credible candidates with new ideas will hopefully add to an open debate in the campaign," Pinto said in a statement. "It is good for FIFA, and it is good for football to have valid candidates with extensive experience in the sport, and from different parts of the world."

Platini has also supported Prince Ali's candidacy.

Ginola's bid is taken less seriously as he's being paid by a bookmaker to run. FIFA's ethics rules forbid officials having links to "betting, gambling, lotteries and similar events or transactions connected with football matches."

Figo's paid contract with Asian gambling operator Dafabet, including as an ambassador for its 2014 World Cup promotion, has now ended, the firm said.

"Now that Luis has decided to stand for FIFA presidency it has been mutually agreed to end the ambassador contract, so he can concentrate his time fully on his campaign," Dafabet's head of sports marketing and sponsorship, John Cruces, wrote in an email reply.

The winning candidate needs two-thirds of the votes for victory in a first round of secret voting in Zurich, or a simple majority in subsequent rounds.

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Associated Press writer Mike Corder in Amsterdam and AP Sports Writer John Leicester in Paris contributed to this report

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