European challenger divides and weakens opposition to current FIFA chief.
Blatter may be re-elected after first round of votes.

European federation UEFA has effectively secured a further four years for Sepp Blatter as FIFA president by undermining the one challenger who had the faintest chance of success.

Michael Van Praag, former Ajax chairman and president of the Dutch football association, is being nominated by his European federation to run against Blatter in the world federation’s leadership election at Congress in Zurich on May 29.

The other two serious candidates already declared are former FIFA official Jerome Champagne – who has admitted he is struggling for the requisite five nominations – and Prince Ali bin Al Hussein of Jordan, FIFA’s Asian vice-president.

Prince Ali, whose candidacy would not benefit from full-hearted support from within the Asian football confederation, had appeared likely to need European backing to mount even a decent challenge to 78-year-old Blatter.

However, assuming that most of the 53 European federations in FIFA membership (Gibraltar is a member of UEFA but not FIFA) feel duty bound to back their own man, it might be that Blatter could achieve the necessary two-thirds support in the first round of voting.

Last June in Sao Paulo all the other regional confederations, bar UEFA, expressed overwhelming support for Blatter to continue in the presidency which he assumed initially in 1998 after having been general secretary and chief executive.

Van Praag, in Sao Paulo, was outspoken in criticism of Blatter, telling him to his face that he should have kept faith with a promise in 2011 that his current term in office would be his last.

The last time Blatter faced any opposition in the election was in 2002 in Seoul, South Korea, when Europe supported a challenge by Issa Hayatou, president of the African confederation. In the event Blatter, despite FIFA’s financial problems at the time, won easily.

In 2011 Mohamed bin Hammam, then president of the Asian confederation, registered a candidacy but was ruled ineligible days before the vote after being suspended over allegations of bribing Caribbean federation officials (accusations which Bin Hammam denied).

Van Praag confirmed his candidacy after today’s meeting of the executive committee and three days before the formal deadline for candidates.

He said: “It is well known that I am very worried about FIFA. It is high time that the organisation is fully normalised and can stand up credibly for the game once more. I had hoped there a credible opponent would come forward but that has simply not happened.

“In such circumstanes you must support your words with deeds and take responsibility. Now therefore I am presenting myself as a candidate. “

KNVB secretary-general Bert van Oostveen, supporting Van Praag, said: “It is clear that something has to change in FIFA to restore its credibility. Michael is the right man for this. The KNVB will fully support him in his campaign. “

Van Praag is expected to present a manifesto during a press conference on Wednesday at the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam.

Last June, he had been the loudest European voice to speak out against four more years of Blatter who taunted UEFA, this past weekend, in failing to match its criticism of him with candidacy action.

In Sao Paulo, Van Praag said: “I told Mr Blatter that I liked him very much so this was nothing personal but the reputation FIFA had built in the last seven or eight years meant people linked FIFA to corruption, bribery, old boys network and such things.

“I told him: ‘FIFA has an executive president and having an executive president means that at the end you are responsible . . . so people tend not to take you seriously any more. That is not good for FIFA, not good for the game, not good for the world.

“You are leading reforms but all [FIFA’s] problems occurred in the period before that when you were also the president and responsible so I believe you should not run any more.’”

Van Praag returned to the attack last month in an interview with the Dtch magazine Voetbal International when he said he feared that FIFA Congress was unlikely to enforce any significant changes and that a new international governing body might be the only solution to the game’s crisis of governance.

Blatter, this past weekend, goaded Europe over its failure to put up a candidate, UEFA president Michel Platini having ruled himself out last August. He may now believe that the European federation has fallen into his trap.

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