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By ESPN Staff

World Cup bidding contest set to start Friday

ZURICH, Switzerland -- The contest to win hosting rights for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups starts Friday when FIFA's executive committee sets a timetable for candidates bidding to stage the world's most popular sporting event.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter says he wants the governing body to choose hosts for both editions in three years' time.

The race will be fiercely contested with a lineup of candidates including Australia, China, England, Russia and the United States.

Blatter has already dropped hints about FIFA's thinking.

With the 2010 tournament being played in South Africa and the 2014 event in Brazil, a northern hemisphere venue is preferred for 2018 and European countries expect to be strongly considered.

Blatter suggested a few months ago that the 2022 World Cup would "perhaps be more preferable" for Australia to target.

One influential FIFA power broker also said he wants the U.S. -- which hosted in 1994 -- to aim for the 2022 tournament.

Jack Warner is president of the CONCACAF federation, which covers North and Central America and the Caribbean, but he has stated his support for England in 2018 and then the U.S. four years later.

The 2010 World Cup will bring FIFA $3.2 billion in television and marketing revenue.

Host countries are chosen by the 25-member FIFA executive, and other expected candidates include Japan, Mexico, a combined Netherlands-Belgium bid, Qatar and Spain.

Friday's meeting is also expected to clarify the rules on releasing players for the Olympics.

The build up to the tournament at the Beijing Games in August was overshadowed by a courtroom battle between FIFA and three European clubs who tried to stop their players from attending.

FC Barcelona had Lionel Messi called up by Argentina, while Brazil selected two players -- Schalke's Rafinha and Diego of Werder Bremen -- from Germany.

The clubs went to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to challenge FIFA's ruling that players aged 23 or under must be allowed to play.

A CAS panel agreed with the clubs because FIFA had not put the Olympic tournament on its official calendar of international match dates.

Even though the clubs won their appeal, the players stayed in China. Messi was a key player in Argentina's gold medal-winning team.

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