By Daniela Desantis
ASUNCION, Aug 29 (Reuters) - South America must keep its strong World Cup presence for the 2018 finals because it is a competitive region with the hardest qualifying programme, CONMEBOL president Juan Angel Napout said on Friday.
Napout told Reuters in an interview that the South American Football Confederation (CONMEBOL) can retain its influence at soccer's world governing body FIFA despite losing the lobbying power of the late Julio Grondona.
The 10-nation confederation, FIFA's smallest but most successful after Europe, has for the last few World Cups had four direct tickets to the finals and a potential fifth coming from an intercontinental playoff it has usually won.
Rival confederations have lobbied for more places at the Russia finals with Europe wanting 15 and CONCACAF seeking a full fourth berth as opposed to three and a playoff place and CONMEBOL could be made to relinquish a fraction of their quota.
With hosts Brazil there were six South American teams at the 2014 finals. Europe had 13, Africa five, with Asia and CONCACAF both having four after Mexico beat Oceania's New Zealand in a playoff.
Argentine Grondona, a powerful FIFA senior vice-president since 1988 and head of his country's ruling body, the AFA, for 35 years who died last month aged 82, played a big part in the region keeping its present quota.
"Julio Grondona is simply irreplaceable, his figure, his mystique, the gift of leadership Don Julio had, are unique. But I prefer to be optimistic," Napout said in an interview at CONMEBOL headquarters in Luque on the outskirts of the Paraguayan capital.
Napout took over the CONMEBOL chair earlier this month from Uruguayan Eugenio Figueredo, who left to fill the place Grondona had held on FIFA's executive committee.
"We have 10 teams and all 10 can qualify. Venezuela are the only South American team never to have played at the World Cup finals. You have to look at the other continents to realise this detail," said the 56-year-old entrepreneur who was president of the Paraguayan FA.
"We have a continent where all the teams compete and it's a very strong competition... Our qualifying series is very hard, there are no other qualifiers harder than ours," he added.
Napout recalled the achievements of South American teams at the last two World Cups with four quarter-finalists in 2010 and three in Brazil, saying he was sure FIFA wanted the region's football to maintain the same presence at its showcase event.
Napout also said he was optimistic about the chances of Argentina and Uruguay, who met in the first World Cup final in Montevideo in 1930, being given approval to organise the centenary tournament in 2030 despite Figueredo's recent doubts.
"I think South America must seek to become a candidate for the year 2030," Napout said.
"Before jumping the gun in judging the situation, I'd prefer to wait for the (CONMEBOL) executive committee, talk with the AFA president, talk with (Uruguay's) AUF and analyse the possibilities.
"South America will work out what we have to do for 2030."
FIFA has already chosen Russia as 2018 World Cup hosts and Qatar to stage the 2022 finals. (Writing by Rex Gowar; editing by Mark Meadows and Ken Ferris)