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Soccer-Champagne's honesty gets campaign off to rocky start

Reuters

By Mike Collett

LONDON, Jan 20 (Reuters) - FIFA presidential candidate Jerome Champagne's opening election address was going smoothly until he told reporters at the launch of his campaign he did not think he would win if Sepp Blatter ran against him.

Champagne delivered a wide-ranging reform programme on Monday but left many wondering whether he had been too honest for his own good.

The 55-year-old appeared to have forgotten all the lessons learned during his years as a French diplomat when he stunned journalists at his media conference.

Asked if he thought he could beat incumbent Blatter if the 77-year-old Swiss decided to stand for a fifth term at the elections in January 2015, Champagne replied: "No, I don't think so.

"He is someone of relevance and we'll see but it's a very hypothetical question. A lot of things can happen."

Too honest? An immediate own goal? Only time will tell.

Champagne was then asked why he was running if he did not think he could beat his former FIFA boss, and also whether he would continue his campaign if Blatter decided to stand.

"I don't know what he will do. I am telling you I am standing but I don't know what will happen in the next four months," said the Frenchman.

"Some people say I am ... being manipulated by him but I am not. I am standing here on my own programme and I cannot answer a hypothetical question."

Champagne is an intriguing candidate because he, in electoral terms at least, is not now part of FIFA, has no direct backing of any national FA and is funding his own campaign.

He maintains that by the deadline of January 2015 he will have the necessary support of five FAs, making him eligible to stand.

If that does not materialise, at least he would have started a debate for change to run alongside FIFA's own existing reforms.

CLOSE TIES

Champagne is also unique in being a former high-ranking FIFA official who was deputy secretary general between 2002-05 and has worked closely with Blatter inside and outside the organisation that runs world soccer.

Since leaving FIFA four years ago this month, he has worked as a consultant to a number of FAs around the world including Palestine, Kosovo and Cyprus.

His work in those areas has produced tangible results but whether it is possible for anyone to unseat Blatter, who has hinted he will stand for a fifth term after being president since 1998, is open to question.

The Swiss beat then-UEFA president Lennart Johansson to succeed Joao Havelange in 1998, retained office when he beat African confederation chief Issa Hayatou in 2002 and was then given a third term in 2007.

Blatter won again in 2011 when Asian confederation president Mohamed Bin Hammam of Qatar withdrew after being accused of being part of a bribes-for-votes scandal in the leadup to the election.

There is no doubt Champagne's ideas are well thought out and, if they were to be adopted, would start to redress some of the imbalances in the game.

He wants to embrace technology to assist referees, he advocates an orange card and the use of a sinbin to be used between a yellow and red card, and has called for more transparency in the governance of the FIFA executive committee.

DEMOCRATIC ELECTION

Champagne seems determined to widen the debate to as many stakeholders in the game as possible and has called for an open, democratic election next year.

"The election must not just be a coronation," he said. "We should have public debates in the congresses of the six confederations and debates on television for viewers and fans to ask questions.

"I want full transparency for this election to push the debate forward."

If he does not think he can beat Blatter, what is the point of him spending his own money on a costly campaign?

Perhaps Champagne is simply eyeing a return to FIFA and another shot at the presidency in the future.

He is keeping that card close to his chest but the way the world of football politics works means it is also a possibility. (Editing by Tony Jimenez)

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