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By ESPN Staff

Blatter backing for Platini provokes furious row

The race to become the most powerful man in European football exploded into controversy on Thursday on the eve of the UEFA presidential election.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter infuriated UEFA's current incumbent Lennart Johansson by publicly declaring his support for challenger Michel Platini, who is viewed as the favourite to win.

The pair are going head to head tomorrow but in a speech at the opening of the UEFA Congress in Dusseldorf, Germany, the FIFA president made no secret of his choice.

Blatter said: 'Both contenders for the presidency have asked me whether they should run as candidates and I have answered yes to both and I would also have said yes to other candidates.

'By saying no to one or another I would have abandoned my neutrality but also as president of FIFA I have the right to say - and this is nothing negative and does by no means reduce the merits of Lennart Johansson - that I do have a sympathy for the man who has been accompanying me since 1998, Michel Platini.'

It provoked a furious reaction from Johansson and his supporters claim there could now be a backlash against Platini.

Johansson said of Blatter: 'I think he's wheeling and dealing, going right and then left, having one opinion on Monday and then another on Tuesday.

'That's not friendship, that's far away from it. I don't follow his ways, I don't get it.'

Johansson added he thought UEFA chief executive Lars-Christer Olsson would resign if Platini won.

Blatter defended his right to express his opinion to the national associations but accepted he had upset the Johansson camp.

The FIFA president said: 'They may criticise that but I said what I think. I have to say to the associations what I am thinking.

'I cannot be the referee, I cannot be the judge, but I have the right to say I have sympathy for the man who has been with me through the turmoils of the last eight years.'

Platini said only: 'I think it was an excellent intervention.'

Blatter said Johansson had to be prepared for a bruising contest - and pointed out that when he stood for re-election as FIFA president five years ago he had been vilified by his opponents. He added: 'Today he is upset but if you are going to stand for election then you have to be tough.

'In 2002, I was practically already in jail according to some people, they wanted me in jail to avoid elections.'

Both candidates were set to lobby the association chiefs up until the last possible moment but it will need a significant tidal change for Johansson to hold on to his seat.

Platini's wooing of the eastern European countries has provided the 51-year-old former France captain and coach with a solid platform, while the impression that Johansson is only standing again to stop him getting in has not helped the 77-year-old Swede.

Neither has Johansson's age helped - UEFA has a rule that committee members have to retire when they reach the age of 70, but that does not apply to the president.

Platini is promising some controversial changes if he gets elected, such as limiting the number of Champions League places to a maximum of three clubs from any one country, and considering expanding the European Championships finals from 16 to 24 teams.

Not surprisingly, both candidates are claiming they have secured enough support to win the contest.