London - 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 favourite.
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
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
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
Gaining most of Europe's 53 votes was never going to be an issue.
And with 500,000 euros of UEFA funding, Infantino has travelled 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
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
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
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
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 behind 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.