Jerome Champagne enters FIFA presidential election contest

FILE - In this May 29, 2014, file photo, French former FIFA executive Jerome Champagne gestures during an interview with The Associated Press in Paris. Champagne, a former French diplomat and onetime FIFA international relations director, will announce his entry into the contest to succeed Sepp Blatter in an election scheduled Feb. 26. The deadline for contenders to apply is Monday Oct. 26, 2015. (AP Photo/Francois Mori, File)

GENEVA (AP) -- The newest contender in FIFA's presidential election race is also the most likely to defend the work of Sepp Blatter.

Jerome Champagne, a French former diplomat, served Blatter for 11 years before being forced out of FIFA in 2010 in a power struggle that pitted the now-suspended president against rivals including Michel Platini.

Five years on, the onetime FIFA international relations director is a contender to lead the embattled governing body out of a corruption crisis and chaos partly provoked by those same leadership tensions.

''I sent my application letter and eight nomination letters to FIFA on Monday night,'' Champagne told The Associated Press in an interview ahead of launching his bid for football's top job on Friday.

''It's an exciting mission,'' said France's deputy consul general in Los Angeles from 1991-95. ''It's a unique opportunity to restore FIFA and to continue what has been done correctly in 111 years.''

Champagne announced his bid after sending a 7-page manifesto to FIFA's 209 member federations.

The detailed document includes plans to modernize how the embattled governing body is run, fight inequality - including cuts to European places at FIFA and the 2026 World Cup - and to trial the use of video review to help referees.

Champagne campaigned for the previous election, won in May by his former boss and ally Blatter, but did not get the required backing of five members to be a candidate.

He now joins Platini, Prince Ali bin al-Hussein and David Nakhid, a former Trinidad and Tobago player, in meeting Monday's deadline to apply for the Feb. 26 emergency election. More contenders are set to stand.

Platini is suspended by the FIFA ethics committee and unlikely to be accepted as a candidate. The UEFA president is appealing against his ban for taking a $2 million salary payment nine years after he worked as Blatter's personal adviser.

Blatter, who is also suspended for paying Platini from FIFA funds in 2011, called the election amid a deepening crisis in June. He announced his planned exit just four days after winning re-election despite FIFA then being subject to American and Swiss criminal investigations of bribery and suspected money-laundering.

Champagne was not linked to personal corruption during and since his FIFA stint, and gets a second election chance because of the scandals.

''The difference is all that has happened since May 27,'' he said, recalling the day two FIFA vice presidents were among seven officials arrested at hotels in Zurich and FIFA offices were raided for evidence.

Blatter was suspended by FIFA after Switzerland's attorney general opened a criminal case over the suspected ''disloyal payment'' - though do not expect criticism from his fellow Zurich resident.

''If I met Mr. Blatter in the street I will say hello. I'm not ashamed of that,'' said Champagne.

Indeed, the 57-year-old sees his experience as a FIFA insider working with members worldwide as a vote-winner.

''They want someone who knows how FIFA functions - for the good and for the bad,'' Champagne said,

Champagne chimed with current ideas to reform FIFA by suggesting a 12-year limit on all elected positions, quotas to ensure women are represented on all football bodies worldwide and ''open and competitive'' bidding for all commercial contracts.

Development in poorer football nations is another priority, and he has long argued against Europe's concentration of wealth and players from across the world.

He set a target of building 400 artificial turf pitches worldwide within four years, partly funded by spending less of FIFA's $1 billion-plus annual revenue on running costs.

Reducing use of private charter jets could help meet a five percent cost-cutting target, Champagne suggested.

Up to 10 new FIFA member nations could be accepted, from Caribbean and Pacific islands and Kosovo, where Champagne has advised football officials since leaving FIFA.

Champagne is also consulting with the Palestinian federation, which this week was given the right to host Saudi Arabia in a World Cup qualifying match next month.

That Palestine ruling was passed by South American football leader Juan Angel Napout. After the decision on Tuesday, Champagne was in talks with Napout at the Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich favored by senior FIFA officials.

Champagne also met with Issa Hayatou, the interim FIFA president from Cameroon who can influence many of the 54 African voters.

''We have to accept that continents are not united,'' said Champagne, who cautioned against seeking bloc votes from FIFA's six confederations.

Champagne said he sent spent ''a little less than'' 50,000 euros ($55,000) of his own money on the first campaign, and does not yet have major financial backers lined up. He pledged transparency in identifying any who help fund his four-month candidacy.