PARIS (AP) -- ''I love FIFA,'' says Jerome Champagne. It sounds incongruous, almost tone-deaf and foolhardy, for anyone to say such a thing when the reputation of football's governing body is in the gutter and when many Brazilians no longer want its World Cup, revolted by the monster fuss and expenditure.
But Champagne, the only declared challenger to succeed Sepp Blatter as FIFA president, is clearly a company man. Break open the French former diplomat and one might almost expect to find the words ''Federation Internationale de Football Association'' running through him, like the sticks of hard candy veined with the names of British seaside resorts - ''Blackpool,'' ''Brighton'' - where they're sold.
And Champagne would probably respond: what is wrong with that? While plenty of opinion-makers would toss Blatter and FIFA onto the bonfire of history, Champagne argues that football needs its governing body more than ever - ''a stronger FIFA,'' he says. ''It works well, but we have to go further.'' It pains him that the credibility of the organization where he worked under Blatter from 1999-2010 has taken such a hammering, with repeated allegations of vote-buying, bribery and other assorted sleaze at FIFA and in football during Blatter's 16-year reign and now seething unhappiness in Brazil ahead of the World Cup kick-off on June 12.
''When you hear all the time that you work for a corrupt organization and you know it's not; when you hear that you work for a boss who is corrupt - and I repeat here: Mr. Blatter is not corrupt - it's difficult,'' Champagne said in a two-hour interview with The Associated Press.
Although Champagne won't say so, his chances of unseating Blatter in May 2015 look slim to non-existent. Under Blatter, FIFA revenues have exploded, from hundreds of millions to billions of dollars, nearly all of it from marketing the World Cup. With that, FIFA built a nest-egg of $1.4 billion in cash reserves and showered gravy over the football world, with generous financial aid ($183 million in 2013 alone) for its 209 member associations and to develop the game around the world. Many football bosses who will applaud Blatter when he addresses FIFA's congress in Brazil next week will do so because they're genuinely thankful.
Because of these mechanisms for redistributing wealth, Champagne says ''the World Cup is Robin Hood,'' taking from the rich and giving to football's poor. Still, he fears that football is increasingly becoming a sport of too few haves and too many have-nots, with wealth and the best players pooling at the richest clubs, making them too strong and destabilizing the game's competitive balance. He talks of ''a financial iron curtain'' dividing football, replacing the ideological divisions of the Cold War. Not enough money is trickling downward, he says. Unchecked, he sees these trends leading to what he calls ''NBA-fication,'' with football becoming like basketball - ''a great sport but a limited sport'' - dominated by one all-powerful league.
''Unequal wealth distribution in the game is destroying the game. Some people refuse to accept that reality,'' he said.
Champagne, 55, married to an American and with three bilingual children, traveled extensively in his first incarnation as a diplomat for France. But he says he has always been a football man, recalling trips with his father to Paris' Parc des Princes stadium as a kid and later, as a long-haired fan, to Glasgow in 1976 to see his team, Saint-Etienne, lose 1-0 to Bayern Munich in the European Cup final.
Both his broad world view and his thinking-man's outlook on the game are evident when he veers off in conversation onto subjects such as globalization and the United Nations and then threads those strands into pronouncements on football. Champagne transitioned from diplomacy into FIFA after working as a diplomatic adviser to the 1998 World Cup in France. Out of FIFA since 2010 but still involved in the game, he now calls himself an ''international football consultant.''
One reason Champagne - unlike many others in football - believes the 2022 Qatar World Cup shouldn't be moved from scorching June-July to cooler winter months is because of his first-hand experience of the Gulf region. Oman was his first overseas posting. Others followed in Cuba, Los Angeles and Brazil.
To avoid the worst of Qatar's summer heat, matches could kick off later in the day, he suggested. He noted that Qatar promised solar-powered, air-conditioned stadiums and, as long as that technology works, then June-July could be better than the ''absolutely tremendous'' disruption of moving the World Cup to November-December, which also would clash with the NFL and college basketball for U.S. broadcasters, he said.
Blatter is expected to seek support at next week's congress for another four-year term. There also is unconfirmed chatter of a possible candidate backed by European governing body UEFA, which would prevent Blatter from running solely against Champagne, whom some observers regard as being overly close to the FIFA president.
The election shouldn't be ''a fight about persons,'' Champagne said. ''It's about ideas, visions, programs.''
Open debate between multiple candidates ''will be a step in reconciling FIFA with the people of football.''
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester
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