- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 26, 2015

ZURICH (AP) - The future of the $5 billion World Cup has become a key battleground in the pursuit of votes in Friday’s FIFA presidential election.

Sepp Blatter, whose grip on power since 1998 has been fortified by the success of soccer’s showpiece tournament, has pledged to stick with 32 teams.

But challenger Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, facing a tough task to unseat Blatter, is courting the 209 FIFA member federations by offering an immediate expansion of the World Cup to 36 teams if elected to power.

FIFA Vice President Jeffrey Webb, though, delivered a blunt warning on Tuesday: don’t risk ruining the World Cup in the pursuit of votes.

“The World Cup is a jewel of football and, for me, you shouldn’t increase the spaces in a World Cup for political reasons,” Webb said. “You should increase the spaces in the World Cup because of the development of the game. Are we going to dilute the World Cup to appease various associations?”

Webb, who is also president of CONCACAF, was speaking after Blatter and Prince Ali addressed a private meeting of his North American confederation in a Zurich hotel.

CONCACAF currently has three guaranteed places and can earn another via a playoff - as Mexico did beating by New Zealand to qualify for the 2014 World Cup.

“Thirty-two (finalists) is great,” Webb said. “If you look at the standard, you look at the television ratings, it’s tremendous. Every single game.”

If Prince Ali’s ends Blatter’s 17-year presidency, CONCACAF would get a guaranteed extra place. But Blatter is heavily favored to win a fifth, four-year term and that means the status quo will prevail at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, which will earn FIFA more than $5 billion in revenue.

“We should remain with the system we have had and this system is the best one and it’s 32 teams,” Blatter said recently. “There shall not be a revolution. The contracts we have done for the next World Cups they are for 32 teams.”

But the smaller nations with little hope of making the World Cup finals are wooed by bonus payments and development projects.

That is “exactly” why Cuba will back Blatter’s re-election bid, said Yero Rodriguez, secretary general of the Caribbean island’s soccer association.

“For us Blatter is a good president, for Cuba’s it’s nice,” Rodriguez said.

Neither Blatter nor Prince Ali would comment on what they revealed in the closed-door meeting with CONCACAF, the first group of voters to gather in Zurich ahead of Friday’s ballot.

Voters said neither made detailed pitches, saving their main campaigning for the 15 minutes of stage time both are allowed Friday by election rules.

“(Prince Ali) was kind of diplomatic in his speech,” said Barbados federation president Randy Harris, adding he was “definitely impressed” that the challenger had also traveled to his Caribbean island.

“I would say that he seemed to be a good person,” Harris added of the prince. “He seemed to understand the vagaries of our countries in CONCACAF, of the needs of our country.”

Still, the prince will find it difficult persuading voters to switch their long-term loyalty from Blatter - particularly after losing two chances to address voters.

The 11-nation Oceania group and his own Asian Football Confederation of 46 FIFA members canceled their meetings which were scheduled on Wednesday.

The 54-voter Confederation of African Football meets Wednesday morning, hours before the 10-member South American body CONMEBOL.

UEFA, the only continent formally asking its members to support Prince Ali, meets on Thursday - a week after Dutch football federation president Michael van Praag and Portugal great Luis Figo withdrew their candidacies.

Figo said FIFA was “living under a dictatorship” with Blatter - an accusation the 79-year-old Swiss rejected on Tuesday.

“I have received so many titles, I am still the president until Friday, let’s say six o’clock in the afternoon,” Blatter said.

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Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris

Graham Dunbar can be followed at www.twitter.com/GDunbarAP

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