As two rivals fall by the wayside, Sepp Blatter remains on course to retain FIFA presidency

Only Prince Ali now stands in the way of a fifth term for the incumbent president.

Prince Ali bin Al Hussein of Jordan will stand alone against Sepp Blatter at FIFA Congress next Thursday after Michael Van Praag and Luis Figo withdrew their candidacies for the presidency of the world football federation.

Van Praag, head of the Dutch federation, quit in the morning and Portugal’s former World Player of the Year stepped aside in the afternoon.

The two men announced their FIFA candidacies only three days before the nominations deadline in January. They were surrogates for UEFA president Michel Platini who had declined to translate his own criticism of Blatter into candidacy deeds.

Blatter, a popular president of the world football federation largely everywhere but in Europe, remains runway favourite to secure a fifth term in office.

He has overseen a remarkable economic transformation over the past decade and many federations around the world have appreciated his development support strategy. They have remained far more relaxed about the ISL and World Cup bid scandals than critics within the European FAs and the western media.

Prince Ali, outgoing Asian vice-president of FIFA, has run a measured campaign which has focused on the need for greater transparency, responsibility and accountability within the governance of the world game.

Van Praag had earned headlines but virtually no support outside Europe with a confrontational approach to the Blatter years while Figo had appeared largely out of his depth.

By pulling out ahead of the election both have lost the opportunity, guaranteed under the election rules, of 15 minutes to address FIFA Congress ahead of the vote. That will please Blatter who will now have to sit and listen to ‘only’ a quarter of an hour from Prince Ali whose campaign has been focused on achieving a brighter future rather than attacking mistakes of the past.

Their withdrawals may also indicate that – despite their hitherto positive comments – they have generated found very little support beyond their home continent to contribute to the anti-Blatter effort.

An early-day statement issued on behalf of Van Praag read: “After thorough deliberation and reflection with different involved parties and stakeholders, Michael Van Praag decided to withdraw his candidacy to become the next FIFA president and to join forces with presidential candidate Prince Ali Al Hussein.”

Van Praag had been forceful in his criticism of reigning FIFA president Sepp Blatter ever since confronting the 79-year-old Swiss during a UEFA conference in Sao Paulo on the eve of last year’s World Cup finals.

Then Van Praag told him: “I said to 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 things.

“I told him: ‘FIFA has an executive president and having an executive president means that at the end you are responsible and, besides, you don’t make it easy on yourself. Now you say that Qatar was the wrong choice which means you blame your executive committee and yesterday you said something about racism.

“‘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.”

Both he and Figo had suggested FIFA could make better use of a slice of its reserves in the cause of worldwide development but most federations within FIFA are happy with the distribution systems enacted under Blatter since his ascension to the presidency in 1998.

Figo in an angry statement released through Associated Press, revealed a naivety about the governance of the world game astonishing in a man who purported to run for its highest office.

He said: “I have seen with my own eyes federation presidents who, after one day comparing FIFA leaders to the devil, then go on stage and compare those same people with Jesus Christ. Nobody told me about this. I saw it with my own eyes.

“The candidates were prevented from addressing federations at congresses while one of the candidates always gave speeches on his own from the rostrum. There has not been a single public debate about each candidate’s proposals.

“Does anyone think it’s normal that an election for one of the most relevant organizations on the planet can go ahead without a public debate? Does anyone think it’s normal that one of the candidates [nb: meaning Blatter] doesn’t even bother to present an election manifesto that can be voted on May 29? Shouldn’t it be mandatory to present such a manifesto so that federation presidents know what they’re voting for?

“That would be normal, but this electoral process is anything but an election. This (election) process is a plebiscite for the delivery of absolute power to one man – something I refuse to go along with.”