- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 24, 2015

VIENNA (AP) - FIFA President Sepp Blatter listened to campaign speeches from his three challengers on Tuesday, hearing how badly his rivals want to change the organization he has been running for 16 years.

None of the three directly turned to Blatter, who was sitting in the front row during the annual UEFA congress, but Michael van Praag spoke last and voiced the harshest criticism toward the man he hopes to succeed after the May 29 election.

“The current state of disarray asks for a change in leadership,” the Dutch soccer federation president said. “I cannot look away. It is the responsibility of our generation to clean up the mess.”

Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan and former Portugal great Luis Figo also presented some insight in their plans.

“We need … a departure from FIFA’s authoritarian approach to strategy,” Prince Ali said.

Figo added: “I know football inside and outside, I know what is good and bad for football.”

Standing for re-election for a fifth term, Blatter turned down UEFA’s invitation to make a campaign speech alongside his rivals. However, the Swiss official delivered an opening statement to the congress in which he didn’t even mention the FIFA presidential election.

“I have delivered my speech for unity and solidarity,” Blatter told The Associated Press. “This is my credo also for the next two months - unity, solidarity. It’s the only way we approach, whether in FIFA or to meet all the challenges we have.”

Blatter was stung when he last faced UEFA at a pre-World Cup meeting in June in Sao Paulo, but was now greeted with a dignified applause by delegates from the 54 member states.

Asked if he felt treated with respect this time, Blatter said “yes, yes, especially the delegates.”

Blatter refrained from controversial issues, instead he hit out at unnamed lawmakers for wanting boycotts of the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the 2022 event in Qatar.

“Football should be united, sport should be united when it comes to boycotts,” he said. “Boycotts have never had any results.”

Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko last week urged allies to boycott the tournament in Russia, and other politicians have also questioned the Qatar event amid accusations of corruption and poor labor conditions.

Blatter praised IOC President Thomas Bach and the president of the German soccer federation, Wolfgang Niersbach, for voicing their outspoken rejection of any calls for World Cup boycotts.

“The autonomy of sports must be guaranteed,” said Blatter, adding that football should not look away from political tensions but should try to help find a solution. “We should do something for peace. Maybe we can help at least certain conflict situations.”

Blatter also called for further action against the “evils of football,” like doping and match-fixing.

“We have the will to fight against it,” he said, urging UEFA to take a leading role in the process.

___

AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar contributed to this report.


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