Sheikh Salman heavy favorite to win FIFA election Friday
ZURICH >> The support of most nations in Africa and Asia and the backing of one of sports' biggest power brokers should be enough to put Sheikh Salman of Bahrain in charge of the world's most popular sport on Friday, as FIFA elects a president to maneuver the soccer body away from decades of corruption.
FIFA officials, delegates and observers told the Associated Press that surveys of voters and confederations indicate Salman had the most support and could win a majority on the first ballot. A second round of voting will likely be necessary unless the other four candidates concede. FIFA rules require a two-thirds majority (138 of 207 federations) on the first ballot, and a majority (104) on later rounds.
Salman seems on track to get the biggest first-round tally, FIFA observers and officials not linked to any candidate told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. The officials, who didn't want their names used to avoid angering voters in the secret ballot, said Salman had received solid pledges of support to get votes ranging from the "high-90s" to 117.
FIFA elections are typically secretive. Few voters offer public opinions and many promise votes to more than one candidate. "The only people you believe are the ones who say they won't vote for you," U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati once said.
But even supporters of Salman's biggest competition — Gianni Infantino, the Swiss general secretary of European governing body UEFA — were not saying Thursday they thought he was leading.
Salman would give the Asia region its first president in FIFA's 112-year history. His election would extend a run of success in Olympic and international soccer votes for candidates and host cities supported by FIFA and International Olympic Committee member Sheikh Ahmad and his Kuwait-based vote-getting operation.
"He is a friend, he is a brother, he is a colleague, a mentor," Salman said of Ahmad. "All of the above. We work together."
Ahmad was key to delivering the IOC presidency to Thomas Bach in 2013, but has kept a lower profile presence in this four-month campaign. He maintained his public silence Thursday evening declining to comment to The Associated Press, even while making last-minute visits with Salman to the Zurich hotel shared by voters from the CONCACAF and Oceania regions — the non-aligned, "swing states" in a race between candidates from Asia, Africa and Europe.
Ahmad joined FIFA's executive committee last year after years of building coalitions in the IOC. Though Ahmad publicly rejects the "kingmaker" label, he flashes a smile when asked about it.
FIFA — which has faced accusations of bribery for decades — has been reeling since May, when the U.S. Justice Department indicted two vice presidents among several men arrested at the last election meeting. Though Sepp Blatter was re-elected, he announced his planned resignation the next week. U.S. authorities have indicted or got guilty pleas from 41 people and marketing agencies in a sprawling investigation that targets Blatter. FIFA itself could be indicted as a racketeering conspirator.
The other candidates are: Prince Ali of Jordan, who conceded to Blatter after a first-round vote last May; Jerome Champagne of France; and Tokyo Sexwale of South Africa.
Salman did not try to match promises by Infantino, who wants to add eight nations to build a 40-team World Cup and more than double annual grants. Salman proposed "needs-based" funding by FIFA and a postelection analysis to determine if the World Cup should be expanded.
Salman has been the most scrutinized candidate, each of which had to pass integrity vetting by FIFA's ethics committee.
He has strongly denied claims that, after Arab Spring protests in 2011 when he was Bahrain soccer federation president, he helped identify national team players to be detained. They later alleged abuse and torture by government security forces.
Ali said Salman, 50, could not gain respect from players and federations worldwide if "you couldn't even take care of your own."
The issue seems less troubling to voters outside Europe — including those in Asia who twice elected him their confederation president.
"It (the election) is about football," said Gordon Derrick, president of the 25-member Caribbean Football Union, said Thursday. "I have read the claims and read the counter-claims. He has come out and explained himself."
While Infantino's globe-trotting campaign has claimed around 70 publicly pledged votes, Salman traveled less and the team behind him cared little for social media.
Leaders of the 54-voter African soccer confederation on Thursday predicted just "one or two rebels" would not vote for Salman, though several more seem possible.
Leaders of 11-member Oceania and 35-voter CONCACAF (North and Central America and the Caribbean), have left their voters free to choose.
The 10-member South American group, known as CONMEBOL, is on its third president in nine months thanks to the U.S. indictments. CONMEBOL and its members say they want to unite and be on the winning side. The sheikh's team says he will crack the region's public pledges to Infantino.
Champagne, a loyal FIFA staffer in the first 11 years of Blatter's presidency, has only scattered support worldwide.
"We are facing the risk of a kind of Cold War inside (FIFA)," Champagne told the AP, suggesting postelection strife, between the continents.
The first-round result should come Friday afternoon in Switzerland, after voters first debate and likely approve a reform slate.
Candidates will then file on stage in alphabetical order to make 10-minute speeches. Sexwale, whose campaign was barely visible, will be last up.
Voters then walk to one of two voting booths and mark paper ballots. FIFA will prevent mobile devices in the booths. In previous years, some voters have allegedly shown photos of their votes in return for bribes.
All five candidates can stay in for the possible second round, then the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated before a third round.
The winner will later face hundreds of accredited global media at a news conference — for Sheikh Salman, the first time he has faced a group of European media since the campaign began.
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