Africa’s top brass have officially endorsed Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa’s bid to succeed Sepp Blatter as FIFA president, a massive boost for the Asian football leader but bad news for Africa’s only candidate for the post, Tokyo Sexwale.
Following a meeting of African soccer leaders in Rwanda, the Confederation of African Football’s (CAF) executive committee said it would “fully support” Sheikh Salman in the election on February 26.
Sheikh Salman already has the backing of his own Asian confederation while his closest rival, Gianni Infantino, the UEFA general secretary, has the backing of Europe — or most of it — along with the majority of CONMEBOL’s 10 members and the seven federations comprising the central American regional association UNCAF.
But Africa has the biggest continental grouping among the 209 voting members with 54 nations and is seen as the bloc that could clinch victory for whoever gets its backing.
The announcement was made by Confederation of African Football vice presidents Suketu Patel and Almamy Kabele Camara at a news conference that was eagerly awaited but lasted literally about a minute in a five-star hotel in Kigali, where the CAF executive committee had met earlier Friday.
Patel and Camara left without taking questions, while other exco members declined comment but it is understood the decision to endorse Sheikh Salman was unanimous,
By turning its back on the only African candidate in the five-man field, CAF gave a clear message to Sexwale, the former political prisoner turned mining tycoon who may now withdraw from the contest.
Although CAF executives declared their support for Sheikh Salman, there is nothing to stop African countries voting for someone else though most are expected to tow the party line.
Salman, Infantino, Sexwale and Jerome Champagne were all in Rwanda to campaign. Prince Ali bin al-Hussein decided against travelling, his campaign team said.
Interim FIFA President Issa Hayatou, who is also the president of CAF, attended the meeting in Rwanda but to avoid a conflict of interest delegated the region’s FIFA election responsibilities to his two vice presidents. However, Hayatou, the longtime head of African soccer, had already hinted in an interview with French newspaper L’Equipe that CAF would back Sheikh Salman.
Infantino, who replaced banned UEFA president Michel Platini in the election, will be disappointed not have got CAF onside especially as Hayatou had made it clear he would have backed Platini had the Frenchman still been eligible.
“I am humbled by the support of CAF’s Executive Committee and tremendously encouraged by the unanimous decision to support my bid for the office of FIFA president,” said Shaikh Salman in a statement after the CAF ExCo decision was announced.
“The two endorsements (CAF and the AFC) only mean that there is a strong groundswell in favour of my candidacy. What they don’t mean, is that I can sit back relax. This campaign will be decided on the day of the vote, February 26, 2016, not before. Naturally, I am confident that I now have a reasonably strong position to work from with such support.”
The move to endorse Sheikh Salman seems bound to rekindle scrutiny over a co-operation agreement signed last month between the AFC and CAF and criticised by Prince Ali, who accused his Asian rival of trying to engineer a bloc of African votes in violation of election rules. No action, however, has been taken by the FIFA body monitoring the election process.
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