- Associated Press - Thursday, November 5, 2015

GENEVA (AP) - In a FIFA election now more open than expected, Prince Ali bin al-Hussein has changed his strategy since Michel Platini was caught up in a corruption scandal.

Speaking with The Associated Press, Prince Ali struck a more cautious note than the fighting talk he directed at Platini before the one-time favorite was questioned in a Swiss criminal investigation over a $2 million payment from FIFA.

The Jordanian royal declined to comment on his opponents, including sidestepping accusations linking Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa to human rights abuses of athletes in Bahrain.

He was, however, ready to talk about soccer.

Prince Ali said he wants the 2026 World Cup to have four more teams in a 36-nation lineup, and he wants the tournament to return to the CONCACAF region, 32 years after the United States hosted it.

Handling the stalled 2026 bidding is a priority for the next FIFA president with Canada, the United States and two-time host Mexico set to bid.

“It should go to CONCACAF this time around, that is my personal opinion,” Prince Ali said in telephone interview from Dubai.

Adding an Under-15 World Cup to FIFA’s tournament program was also “a great idea and possible to do,” he said.

That proposal was made to the long-time Jordan soccer association president by a FIFA colleague among the 209 members who will vote in the Feb. 26 election.

It seems likely - with FIFA leaders weakened and the governing body in turmoil - that voters have more freedom than in previous elections where intimidation and deals cut at confederation level were, according to many, typical.

“I have faith in everyone really voting for who they think is the best candidate, and I hope to be that person,” Prince Ali said. “Perhaps alone among the candidates I have support across the regions.”

When Prince Ali lost to Sepp Blatter in May, two days after the American and Swiss criminal investigations rocked FIFA in Zurich, leaders of the Asian soccer confederation did not support him.

An alliance of Europe and Asia then made Platini the election favorite until the payment from FIFA in 2011 came to light. Platini has since been suspended by the FIFA ethics committee and cannot formally campaign while his appeal and the full investigation are pending.

It is now a seven-man race as doubt about Platini led others to declare, including Asian confederation president Sheikh Salman and UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino.

“A lot of people have joined the race but I think that is healthy, it shows there is democracy,” Prince Ali told the AP in his first interview since the entry deadline passed last week.

It also made strategy more complex than targeting Platini and a culture of “back-room, under-the-table deals,” as the prince said when the former France great announced his campaign in July.

Prince Ali’s launch speech in Amman in September talked of his courage challenging Blatter when others “didn’t have the guts to run.”

However, his broad message is the same even if Blatter and Platini are not there to oppose him.

“I’m not going to accept to do any of the politicking,” said Prince Ali, adding that his expansion plan for the World Cup was for soccer reasons. “It is definitely not electioneering. … It is based on results in the last World Cup and it is natural there can be a logical growth.

“I’m doing this for football’s sake and football’s sake alone.”

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