Feb 21, 2016 12:28 AM
From favorite Salman to flop Sexwale, FIFA hopefuls assessed
The Associated Press
LONDON (AP) When national soccer leaders enter FIFA's secret voting booths to select a president on Friday, Sepp Blatter won't be an option for the first time in 22 years.
Five candidates are seeking the job of running world soccer and showing criminal authorities that scandal-tarnished FIFA can clean up its act while regaining the trust of fans.
The emergency election in Zurich nine months after Blatter was voted in for a fifth term was prompted by the now-banned president's resignation as corruption investigations escalated.
The Associated Press assesses the largest election field in FIFA's 111-year history, with Sheikh Salman and Gianni Infantino the front-runners.
The Bahraini royal, who leads the Asian Football Confederation, was quick to endorse Michel Platini for the FIFA presidency last July and had never spoken of ambitions to run the global game.
Now he is the favorite.
Platini's suspension from world soccer over a 2011 payment from FIFA changed everything. Salman entered the contest on deadline-day in October and adopted a low-key approach to canvassing, focusing on federation meetings away from the spotlight rather than parading in front of the media like Infantino.
The 50-year-old Salman pledges to take the same approach to the FIFA presidency, shunning the limelight craved by Blatter and delegating power to specialists. There has been no formal campaign news conference, but he has given interviews.
Salman's candidacy has been dogged by questions over the 2011 Arab Spring in Bahrain. Rival Prince Ali sought to use the criticism of rights groups to electoral advantage, questioning why the sheikh didn't do more to protect Bahrain players who alleged abuses after pro-democracy protests.
Salman has strenuously denied wrongdoing and maintained that his sporting role was distant from Bahraini politics. Despite the resources of rights groups and rival candidates, no fresh allegations have been unearthed during the FIFA campaign.
The majority of Salman's support comes from the key continents of Asia and Africa, featuring 100 of the 209 federations.
Like Salman, Infantino's campaign was only conceived following Platini's disgrace. Once the UEFA president was suspended, European federations sought a candidate and turned to Platini's top administrator.
As UEFA general secretary, the 45-year-old Infantino is the most globally recognized of the candidates due to his role presiding over draws for European competitions.
Gaining most of Europe's 53 votes was never going to be an issue. And with 500,000 euros of UEFA funding, Infantino has traveled the globe in search of endorsements. Infantino's team is counting on at least 69 votes so far, including the 10-nation South American CONMEBOL bloc and 11 backers further north in CONCACAF. He lacks public support from Asian and Africa nations.
Born close to Blatter's Swiss hometown, Infantino has drawn straight from the 17-year president's playbook by pledging to bump up FIFA's cash handouts to members. He is also keen on expanding the World Cup from 32 to 40 teams and allowing regions to share World Cup hosting giving more countries the chance of staging soccer's showpiece.
The Jordanian federation president denied Blatter a first-round victory in last May's head-to-head election before standing aside for the incumbent. But Ali's 73 votes were mostly gathered from European federations who now back Infantino.
The 40-year-old Ali has been playing catch-up on the campaign trail, relying on regular media appearances to maintain his relevance while unable to flaunt endorsements.
Attempts to get rivals censored by FIFA have failed.
Ali complained to FIFA about a co-operation deal between the African federation headed by acting FIFA President Issa Hayatou and Salman's Asia. Hayatou quickly relinquished some of his CAF powers.
FIFA then rejected Ali's complaint several months into the campaign about the election watchdog chief sharing Infantino's Swiss-Italian nationality.
Ali spent four years on the FIFA inner-sanctum as a vice president until May, but he has been the most outspoken of the five candidates about the governing body's culture, criminality and damaged status.
Champagne spent the first decade of the century at FIFA, working as deputy secretary general and international relations director before being forced out in 2010.
Although vocal from the outside since then about the need to rebalance the power in world soccer while championing smaller and emerging federations, Champagne has still appeared to be a Blatter loyalist.
The former French diplomat failed to gain the five nominations required to stand last year, but he did meet the threshold this time. The five have never been named and he does not appear to have amassed votes through the campaign.
Champagne's self-funded campaign has the personal touch rivals lack, such as tweeting himself, but fellow European Infantino has eclipsed him on the stump. The 57-year-old Champagne has criticized the financial viability of Infantino's cash pledges.
The 62-year-old South African had the credentials to be a powerful voice in the campaign. A former Robben Island prisoner and anti-apartheid activist, Sexwale's profile had grown leading FIFA's attempts to resolve differences between Israeli and Palestinian soccer leaders.
But his election campaign had been a complete washout. Ghana federation president Kwesi Nyantakyi derided Sexwale's pitch to CAF for focusing on his past friendship with Nelson Mandela and time on Robben Island over any plan for soccer.
Scant discussion of Sexwale's candidacy has been dominated by speculation about when he would withdraw. It's yet to happen.
Kuwait and Indonesia face being banned from having a say in the FIFA election due to government interference in the federations' independence. That would leave 207 voters.
A two-thirds majority of 138 is required to win in a first round of voting. If that target is not met, a simple majority of over 50 percent 104 is necessary from the second round. The lowest-ranked candidate is eliminated from subsequent rounds.
From FIFA's founding in 1904, there were no contested elections until Stanley Rous was elected in 1961. The Englishman was unseated by Joao Havelange in the 1974 vote.
Havelange led FIFA unchallenged for 24 years. The Brazilian won re-election for the final time in 1994 before being succeeded four years later by Blatter. The 79-year-old Swiss won two of his five elections unopposed.
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