By Mike Collett
LONDON (Reuters) - Dutchman Michael Van Praag could split the anti-Sepp Blatter vote in this year's FIFA presidential election with Africa set to back the incumbent Swiss all the way to a fifth term of office.
Two days before the deadline for nominations closes on Thursday, Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein of Jordan welcomed Van Praag's candidacy even though it could damage his own.
Five men have declared an interest in running, although only Van Praag, the 67-year-old head of the Dutch FA, and Prince Ali, the Asian vice-president on the FIFA executive committee, look like getting the necessary backing of five national associations to qualify as official candidates.
Jerome Champagne, the former FIFA deputy secretary general who was the first to declare just over a year ago, is struggling to get support while the campaigns of former France international David Ginola and agent Mino Raiola look like nothing more than publicity stunts.
With the election due to take place at the FIFA Congress in Zurich on May 29, the 78-year-old Blatter remains the overwhelming favorite to secure a fifth term in office.
Despite years of controversy, Blatter retains a global power base and Kwesi Nyantakyi, the president of the Ghana Football Association and a Confederation of African Football (CAF) executive committee member, said the majority of Africa's 53 countries will be voting for him.
"Africa is solidly behind Blatter. You will find he is very popular on the continent," he told Reuters.
"The continent is united behind him," added former South African FA president Molefi Oliphant, who still serves on the CAF executive.
"We made a formal endorsement of his candidacy last year at our meeting in Rio de Janeiro already," Nyantakyi added.
Affection for Blatter stems from the generous financial assistance he has given Africa during his 17-year tenure and he also remains popular in Asia, eastern Europe, South America and most of the CONCACAF region of North and Central America and the Caribbean.
Until Van Praag declared his interest, Prince Ali appeared to be Blatter's strongest opponent with support in Europe, parts of Asia and CONCACAF, the confederation covering North and Central America and the Caribbean.
Now the Dutchman could complicate matters for the prince.
Although many European countries would have backed him as a credible alternative to Blatter, they could well now be more favorable to a candidate from their own continent who openly criticized Blatter at a UEFA meeting last year.
Van Praag, who once regarded himself as a personal friend of Blatter, said he was now "very worried" about the state of football's scandal-plagued governing body.
"It is high time that the organization is fully normalized and puts its full focus back on football," he said on the Dutch FA's website.
"For a time, I hoped that there would be a credible opponent, but that's simply not happened. Then you must not only use words but also act decisively and take responsibility. Therefore I present myself now as a candidate."
Although Van Praag's remark could be seen as less than gracious towards Prince Ali, the Jordanian was more complimentary about the Dutchman.
"We welcome other credible colleagues from the football family who want to join a genuine debate about the future of FIFA," Prince Ali said in a statement.
"This election campaign is not about personalities, it is about what is in the best interests of football and the world governing body of the game going forward.
"It is good for democracy that Michael Van Praag has made this announcement."
(Additional reporting by Mark Gleason and Brian Homewood, editing by Ed Osmond)