By Mike Collett
LONDON (Reuters) - A planned televised debate involving the men battling to become the next president of soccer body FIFA descended into farce on Monday after all but one candidate withdrew amid talk of "political interference."
Frenchman Jerome Champagne will now be the only one of the five to address the forum in Brussels, jointly organized by the New FIFA Now pressure group and the European Parliament's Sports Intergroup.
U.S. sports television network ESPN canceled plans to broadcast a live stream of the debate from the parliament building.
Champagne, a former FIFA deputy general-secretary, told Reuters he would be there regardless.
"I will be in Brussels on Wednesday since this debate, far from being a form of governmental interference, constitutes an opportunity to expose visions for the future of football and to start rebuilding trust around FIFA," he said.
The debate was to have focused on the future of the crisis-hit world governing body and provide a forum for "open, transparent discussion" ahead of the Feb. 26 presidential election in Zurich.
Sepp Blatter, president since 1998, and UEFA president Michel Platini have been banned from football for eight years by FIFA's Ethics Committee as the world body endures the worst graft scandal in its history.
Forty-one individuals, many of them national association presidents, and entities have been indicted in the United States for bribery, money laundering and wire fraud since May.
While Champagne will speak to delegates, there will be a video presentation from his presidential rival Gianni Infantino, the UEFA general secretary.
It was already known that Infantino, currently in Paraguay attending meetings of the South American confederation CONMEBOL, and Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa of Bahrain would not attend the meeting.
However, Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein of Jordan and South African Tokyo Sexwale withdrew on Monday.
Prince Ali told the Sports Intergroup that he feared the meeting might break FIFA's election rules on political interference.
A statement from New FIFA Now said Ali had written to Marc Tarabella, chairman of the Sports Intergroup, and British parliamentarian Damian Collins who co-founded New FIFA Now, that he had been advised the forum "may well constitute a breach of FIFA election rules."
Ali said he believed another candidate had made a complaint to the FIFA ad-hoc Electoral Committee that is monitoring the election that hosting the debate might constitute "political interference."
A spokesman for Infantino told Reuters the Swiss had made no complaint, as did a spokesman for Salman.
A spokesman for Sexwale told Reuters it made no sense to attend with only one other candidate confirmed.
"We were on our way to Brussels, but we are turning around and going home," he said.
Collins refuted any claims of political bias, saying the debate was taking place in a neutral venue that has no executive powers relating to sport.
"We are merely trying to put legitimate questions about the future of FIFA to presidential candidates as members of various parliaments as well as on behalf of fans and other key stakeholders," he said.
"Any organization interested in, or committed to, democracy, transparency and accountability would understand this as should the people who want to be FIFA president."
He said he had written to the chairman of the Electoral Committee, Domenico Scala, seeking clarification on whether there is any reason why candidates would not be allowed to participate in the debate if they wanted to do so.
"Rather than helping to rebuild FIFA's credibility in the broader community, this outcome will just add to the impression that people at FIFA do not want open discussion about the future and reform of the organization," Collins said.
(Additional reporting by Simon Evans in Miami and Brian Homewood in Berne, editing by Alan Baldwin and Pritha Sarkar)