UPDATE 1-Soccer-China's Zhang opts out of AFC race - report
* Acting AFC head not vying for permanent post
* Four candidates running as deadline approaches (Adds details, quotes)
March 3 (Reuters) - China's Zhang Jilong, the acting head of Asian soccer, will not run for the AFC presidency in its upcoming election, local media reported on Sunday.
The Asian Football Confederation has been without a permanent president since Qatari Mohamed Bin Hammam was banned for life by FIFA for corruption and bribery.
"I made this decision totally out of my own will and with careful thinking," Zhang, who has held the acting role since May 2011, told Chinese government news agency Xinhua.
"I am really honoured that I was entrusted with the caretaker job while AFC was in its most difficult time.
"I am happy that I did my part to maintain the stability of AFC and my job has been done. It is time to elect a new leader for AFC."
The AFC could not be reached for comment.
Zhang's decision is likely to leave four candidates in the running for the top Asian soccer post, with United Arab Emirates soccer chief Yousuf Al Serkal, his Bahrain counterpart Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa and Saudi Arabia official Hafez El Medlej all throwing their hats in the ring from West Asia.
Thailand's Worawi Makudi has also confirmed his candidacy and has the backing of the 12 votes from Southeast Asia. The AFC has 47 member associations in all.
AFC vice president Al Serkal said the acting Asia chief would have been a welcome candidate in the race.
"I was hoping that Mr Zhang will continue in the race. It is unfortunate to lose such a qualified person from the race," Al Serkal told Reuters on Sunday.
"I was hoping that if I am not elected then at least he has the experience. He's also a good person and I am not saying the other are not. But it would have been interesting to have more contestants.
"We have two zones -- East and South -- without any candidates. In my opinion, it will be easier now for zones to make deals."
Worawi, an ally of Bin Hammam, appears to have a headstart on his rivals with his Southeast Asian support and has been campaigning hard for eight votes in the South Asian region (SAFF).
His cause would be helped if three rivals from West Asia fight among themselves to garner support in their own zone.
Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, the president of the West Asian Football Federation, has called a meeting on Thursday to try to get a consensus candidate from the zone.
"There's a meeting called by Prince Ali of Jordan on the sixth of this month," Al Serkal added. "I don't know if there will be an agreement in the meeting, doesn't look like it.
"But I am hoping that if this meeting takes place, we can come up with a decision of fielding one contestant rather than three."
Asian soccer has been mired in crisis since Bin Hammam was given a lifetime ban by FIFA for bribery and corruption during his failed bid to become the world governing body's leader nearly two years ago.
In the absence of a permanent leader, the AFC have been hit with numerous problems, with matchfixing the latest issue to strike.
Lebanon, South Korea, Malaysia and China have all recently encountered matchfixing scandals while Indonesian football is in turmoil after a two-year battle for power divided officials.
China's Zhang said he hoped his withdrawal would help diffuse the tension among the member associations.
"Peace has been a rare thing in AFC for a very long time and I am sure that every member would like to see it again," he said. "Hopefully my withdrawal will reduce the tension and bring more unity and harmony to the Asian soccer family."
Sunday marks the deadline for nominations for the May 2 leadership election. (Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly in Mumbai; Editing by Peter Rutherford)
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