Nations keep cards close to their chests

From top left: Fifa Presidential candidates Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, Gianni Infantino, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, Tokyo Sexwale, and Jerome Champagne.
From top left: Fifa Presidential candidates Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, Gianni Infantino, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, Tokyo Sexwale, and Jerome Champagne. PHOTO: EPA FILE

Polling shows Infantino and Sheikh Salman as front runners, with Africa key to outcome

ZURICH • The five men vying for the leadership of world football made their final eve-of-vote pitches yesterday, outlining competing visions for the future of governing body Fifa as it tries to recover from the worst corruption scandal in its history.

Delegates from more than 200 countries and territories will elect a new president today to succeed Sepp Blatter. Whoever takes over from the Swiss, who ran Fifa for 18 years like a globe-trotting head of state, will inherit a different job, with a focus on crisis management.

"The world is waiting and watching - this is the biggest milestone in the history of Fifa," said Jordanian candidate Prince Ali Al-Hussein. "It will decide if Fifa goes ahead as we want or if it spirals down."

 

Swiss candidate Gianni Infantino repeated his promise to offer each of Fifa's members US$5 million (S$7.02 million) to invest in the sport over a four-year period - more than double the US$2.05 million per federation provided from 2011-14. He said this could be done "easily" by tackling the cost structure of Fifa.

Bahrain's Sheikh Salman Ebrahim Al-Khalifa, who along with Infantino is seen as a front runner, was more cautious, speaking of a "realistic" increase in funding.

"For me, if the numbers are right, we can increase - but I am not ready to mortgage Fifa's future on winning an election," he said.

ALL EYES ON FIFA

The world is waiting and watching – this is the biggest milestone in the history of Fifa. It will decide if Fifa goes ahead as we want or if it spirals down.

PRINCE ALI AL-HUSSEIN, Jordanian candidate

Frenchman Jerome Champagne and South Africa's Tokyo Sexwale are the other candidates.

No matter who wins, expect this: The new president will start by praising a "fair and transparent" election process and complimenting his rivals. He will commit to the reform process and to restoring the organisation's reputation.

After all, the talking points have been suggested by Fifa in an eight-page internal briefing. It illustrates how desperate Fifa is to change the global football story from corruption to reform.

If an AFP poll of world football's members is anything to go by, the victory speech will be made by Infantino. It is worth noting, however, that of the 209 national associations contacted, only 161, or 77 per cent, replied to the survey.

Some gave an answer and changed their mind. Some said they are not certain to vote. Kuwait and Indonesia will almost certainly not vote as they are suspended by Fifa.

Sixty-eight federations declared allegiance to Infantino, and 28 sided with Sheikh Salman even as human rights groups have accused him of being involved in the arrest and torture of footballers involved in the 2011 civil protests when he was head of the Bahrain Football Association.

The apparent gap in support between the two candidates should be treated with caution. European associations instructed to back Infantino by Uefa were more ready to reply than those in Asia and Africa, who have come out in favour of the Bahraini sheikh.

Only four federations publicly backed Prince Ali. His campaign hopes to get significantly more.

None openly pledged votes to the two remaining candidates. In total, 61 federations refused to declare their hand. That suggests the luxury Zurich hotels favoured by Fifa delegates will be awash with discussions in the run-up to the poll, with some federations likely to ignore the instructions of their umbrella confederations.

Indeed Africa - the biggest confederation with 54 votes - will be the battleground in the duel between the front runners.

Infantino, who has just been to Africa, said he is certain he has convinced some federations on the continent to back him.

"I feel very confident of having some support in Africa... I think I will have the majority of African votes," he told reporters at Cape Town airport on Monday.

If Prince Ali finishes in third place, as widely expected, where his voters switch their support to could also be key to the result.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 26, 2016, with the headline 'Nations keep cards close to their chests'. Print Edition | Subscribe