- Associated Press - Saturday, June 27, 2015

GENEVA (AP) - Sepp Blatter says his decision to leave FIFA was “liberating” and he expects the election to replace him will be in early 2016.

In an interview published Saturday, Blatter explained why on June 2 he announced his planned FIFA exit amid American and Swiss investigations of corruption in world soccer.

“It was the only way to take away the pressure from FIFA and my employees, including (pressure) from the sponsors,” Blatter told his local Walliser Bote newspaper. “To remove FIFA and me personally from the line of fire.”

Blatter was asked “hand on heart” if he would renege on his promise to go.

“I am not a candidate, but the elected president,” Blatter said in an interview given several days ago. “And I want to hand over FIFA in good condition.”

That is likely to be next year, he suggested, at a special election congress of FIFA’s 209 member federations in Zurich.

Blatter said the “realistic” date was the beginning of 2016, to prepare a four-month election campaign required by FIFA rules and avoid a clash with the Club World Cup. That tournament in Japan is scheduled Dec. 10-20.

In his most frank comments yet since his stunning June 2 speech, the 79-year-old Blatter reflected on the approaching end of his four decades at FIFA and what lies ahead.

“I am not yet having many thoughts about this, and am not worrying,” he said. “The decision to go is definitely liberating. For FIFA and for myself.”

He suggested that his final months will be busy, despite many descriptions of him as a lame-duck leader.

“I am still president of FIFA and fully capable of acting. FIFA and football have been the most important part of my life for 40 years,” Blatter said. “So I will use all my strength and inspiration up to my last working day to steer the ship back into the safe harbor.”

Blatter has pledged to drive through modernizing reforms which could be approved at the election congress.

“The key to this is strengthening democracy in the ‘FIFA government’,” he said. “There should not be a redistribution of the places on the executive committee, but an appropriate expansion of the body.”

Blatter said Asia and Africa were not democratically represented on the executive committee he has chaired as president since 1998. The two continents combine for 100 FIFA members yet have only nine of 25 voting seats on the ruling panel.

Further FIFA vs. UEFA tensions are likely with Europe’s traditional influence in world soccer under attack.

Blatter won re-election last month despite UEFA President Michel Platini, his former protege turned adversary, urging him to resign. Their face-to-face meeting followed the day after American and Swiss federal cases hit FIFA and top officials with raids in Zurich for separate investigations of alleged corruption.

The events of May 27 were an “earthquake” for football, Blatter acknowledged.

The Swiss probe focuses on possible money laundering and criminal mismanagement at FIFA, mainly in the bidding contests which awarded the 2018 World Cup to Russia and 2022 tournament to Qatar. Switzerland’s attorney general, Michael Lauber, has said Blatter is not under suspicion but could be questioned.

The American case alleges bribery in the 2010 World Cup hosting vote and widespread bribery and racketeering implicating senior FIFA officials in organizing competitions in North and South America. Seven men among 14 indicted have been detained in Zurich and face extradition to the United States.

Blatter is a part of the widening investigation, American law enforcement officials have confirmed.

Saturday’s interview did not address if Blatter is avoiding travel to countries where he risks arrest at the request of American authorities. The Women’s World Cup final is played next weekend in Vancouver, Canada.

Blatter offered one piece of advice to his successor: That he should continue with FIFA development programs which 130 members depend on.

Asked if he expected Platini to seek the presidency, Blatter replied: “I’m not a prophet. You’ll have to ask him. “

___

Associated Press writer Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

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