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By Mike Collett
LONDON, May 21 (Reuters) - Unless the world of soccer shifts on its axis at the end of this month, Sepp Blatter will be re-elected as FIFA president for a fifth term at the annual congress of world soccer's governing body in Zurich.
It is almost inconceivable that any of the 79-year-old's three challengers, Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan of FIFA's executive committee, Dutch FA president Michael van Praag or former World Footballer of the Year Luis Figo will unseat him.
Five of FIFA's six continental confederations publicly expressed their support for Blatter before the World Cup in Brazil last year, with UEFA declaring its opposition, meaning the vast majority of FIFA's 209 members will vote for him.
But even UEFA president Michel Platini decided to stay in his current role and not stand against the Swiss incumbent knowing he had no real chance of beating him.
That realistically removed any doubt that Blatter's 17-year reign would be extended until at least 2019 when he will be 83.
So how has soccer, the world's most popular sport, reached a position where one old man is so powerful he is not voted out of office?
How can he stay, the sceptics ask, despite almost endless controversies and allegations of bribery and corruption pointed at FIFA for most of the last two decades?
The latest serious allegations were that the voting process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups, awarded to Russia and Qatar, was corrupt.
The findings of the inquiry into those claims, led by American lawyer Michael Garcia, have been buried in the FIFA vaults and are never likely to be publicly revealed.
A new book, "The Ugly Game", highlights claims of "How Qatar bought the World Cup" and Blatter's role in it.
But like every allegation thrown at him since he first became president in 1998, Blatter has emerged unscathed and will almost certainly be voted back into office on May 29.
Michel D'Hooge, 68, the honorary president of the Belgian FA and a FIFA executive committee member since 1988, has no doubts about why Blatter cannot be toppled.
"He is powerful, he is untouchable, he is, I would say, the Pope of Football," D'Hooge told Reuters in an interview in August.
"He cannot be summed up in only one phrase but if I had to answer with one word it would be: intelligence. He is an incredibly intelligent man, he knows everything, and everybody and knows how everything works.
"He has enormous political nous. You could say, and there are those in UEFA that do, that if you are 79 and you are the boss of an organisation that has been seriously criticised, then you must take responsibility for the criticism.
"But, on the other hand, his life is FIFA, he may be 79 but he is incredibly mentally alert."
D'Hooghe has had his differences with Blatter in the past, but he also sees the qualities of the man.
"He understands the cultures of different parts of the world that make up FIFA so it is no coincidence that most of the members would vote for him," he said.
"Of course, you can say that they feel good because they receive a lot of money and grants from FIFA -- that is his political behaviour."
D'Hooghe also has a warning for the three challengers.
"No-one should stand against him because they know they have no chance. It is very simple, it would be suicide to stand against him, you cannot beat him."
Others agree he cannot be beaten.
One former executive committee member, who spoke to Reuters in Monte Carlo last August on condition of anonymity, agreed that Blatter has a certain omnipotence.
"He is the world champion of manipulation, a master. There is no-one like him, no-one.
"Look how he handled the Sunday Times story regarding corruption over the World Cup vote to Qatar. He immediately branded all Europeans "racist" because they said, 'Look at what is happening in Africa, in Asia"
"That is the kind of manipulation he does on a lot of things.
"So those kind of comments win him the support of those who feel attacked by what they regard as the European elite."
The former executive member added: "But he also rules by what I call his extremely anti-democratic way of management because things are never brought to discussion.
"So the question is how can this go on? It goes on because he is in a position to give the federations money, through World Cup bonuses and the Goal Project (grass roots funding) and does things like remove all age limits for officials.
"So they can stay as long as they like, and in return he gets their votes."
FATHER OF FOOTBALL
But not everyone agrees with the criticism.
After all, Blatter has held his position for 17 years and been re-elected with sizeable majorities in the two campaigns that have come to the ballot box.
He has helped turn FIFA into a hugely wealthy organisation with a reported $1.5 billion in the bank.
There are many, especially outside Europe, who regard him very favourably and the CONCACAF Congress in Nassau last month turned into something of a pro-Blatter rally with the Trinidad and Tobago FA chief Raymond Tim Kee praising him as the "father of football".
The president of the Dominican Republic federation Osiris Guzman compared him to Moses, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King Jr as well as Jesus and Nelson Mandela.
Blatter himself would not go that far, but his popularity among ordinary mortals will be enough to almost certainly see him re-elected in two weeks time. (Reporting by Mike Collett, editing by Pritha Sarkar)