FIFA candidates make late push for African support


KIGALI, Rwanda (AP) — FIFA presidential candidates made a late push Friday for support in Africa, the confederation with the largest number of votes in this month’s election.

The Confederation of African Football held an executive committee meeting at a hotel in Kigali — its last major meeting before the Feb. 26 FIFA election — and may make a public pledge of support for one of the five men hoping to succeed Sepp Blatter.

CAF has 54 voting member countries, one more than UEFA, and represents a crucial bloc. CAF has so far not publicly backed any candidate.

Four of the candidates, UEFA secretary general Gianni Infantino, Asian Football Confederation president Sheikh Salman of Bahrain, former FIFA executive Jerome Champagne of France, and South African businessman Tokyo Sexwale, were campaigning in Kigali. The other candidate, former FIFA vice president Prince Ali of Jordan, decided not to travel to Rwanda, his campaign team said.

Infantino and Sheikh Salman, the strongest contenders to win the presidency of the scandal-scarred soccer body, are expected to receive significant support from their home continents of Europe and Asia, respectively, leaving Africa as a possible clinching bloc of votes.

“I have my principles and want to change football if voted into office as FIFA president,” Infantino said at the five-star Serena Hotel, where CAF’s top executives were meeting.

Infantino has campaigned widely in Africa, posting regularly on social media as he watched international games in countries like Madagascar and Senegal, took selfies with the Gabon team and met last month with Rwandan President Paul Kagame.

Sheikh Salman’s campaign has been less visible, but in a possibly significant development, his Asian confederation signed a cooperation agreement with CAF last month. The move was criticized by Prince Ali as an attempt by Salman to engineer African votes in his favor against FIFA election rules.

CAF and interim FIFA President Issa Hayatou hinted Thursday in an interview with French newspaper L’Equipe that Sheikh Salman could be the preferred choice for CAF, which would then be turning its back on Sexwale.

“If we decide to support Salman, is it a crime? Who can prevent us from doing this?” Hayatou said.

Although CAF alone can’t win the election for any of the candidates, it could lose it for Sexwale.

The South African mining tycoon, a political prisoner during apartheid who was jailed alongside Nelson Mandela, has failed so far to win over his home continent. He could be forced to withdraw if it’s clear that he doesn’t even have Africa’s support.

The South African Football Association met Sexwale this week over his lackluster campaign, and said it was delaying a decision over whether his campaign should be called off until after CAF’s meeting.

Sexwale didn’t comment to an AP reporter at the Serena Hotel as he rushed to a meeting.

“I will speak to you later,” he said, “when I am more settled.”

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