The head of Asian football is poised to announce a bid for the Fifa presidency, a source told AFP on Friday, in a move that would dramatically reshape the election race.
Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al Khalifa could make a formal announcement as early as Friday and would be a serious contender given his position as the leader of Fifa’s second-largest confederation.
A bid by the Bahraini royal would be another major blow to already suspended vice-president Michel Platini, whom he formerly backed for the Fifa job, and his Asian rival Prince Ali bin Al Hussein of Jordan.
Fifa has been thrown into turmoil with outgoing chief Sepp Blatter, former favourite Platini and South Korean candidate Chung Mong-joon all suspended, and corruption allegations engulfing the world body.
Despite mounting sleaze claims and criminal charges against senior figures including Blatter, Fifa elections are still planned to go ahead on February 26 with Platini among the candidates who have until October 26 to register.
The other potential contenders make up a varied group that includes Brazil’s Zico, former Fifa deputy secretary general Jerome Champagne and South African anti-apartheid campaigner Tokyo Sexwale.
It is a situation that could leave the way clear for the soft-spoken Sheikh Salman, who was a staunch backer of the corruption-tainted Blatter until recent months.
Sheikh Salman is also an unshakeable supporter of Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup, whose controversial bidding process was the subject of an internal Fifa investigation.
The Manchester United fan and one-time accountancy drop-out drifted between careers and even had a spell as a customs officer before turning his hand to football administration.
Backed by Kuwaiti powerbroker Sheikh Ahmad al Fahad al Sabah, he won a landslide election in 2013 to succeed disgraced Qatari Mohamed bin Hammam as president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
In April, he strengthened his grip when he won a fresh four-year term unopposed and became a Fifa vice-president – taking a post previously held by Prince Ali – into the bargain.
Sheikh Salman has thrived in his alliance with Sheikh Ahmad, who was elected to Fifa’s executive committee at the April congress and is also a major player in the Olympic movement.
The imposing Kuwaiti, a supporter of International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach, heads the influential Olympic Council of Asia, which runs the Asian Games among other major events.
He is also president of the Association of National Olympic Committees, which has more than 200 members, and chairs the Olympic Solidarity Commission, which hands out grants for athletes and sports development.
Sheikh Salman would have a major clear-up job on his hands at Fifa, a similar situation to the one he inherited at the AFC when he took over from Bin Hammam promising a clean slate.
In the ongoing fall-out from Bin Hammam’s reign, AFC secretary general Alex Soosay was suspended in May over an alleged cover-up of financial documents in 2012. He later resigned.
Peter Velappan, a long-time AFC secretary general from 1978-2007, said he wanted an Asian candidate to lead the world body, but he warned: “Running Fifa is not a small job.
“I don’t think many people are happy with him (Sheikh Salman). He is the leader of the AFC but he has not been seen as doing enough for Asia,” said Velappan.
The Malaysian veteran, who supports Prince Ali’s bid, added: “It’s been a long time and now is the time for someone from Asia to take over at Fifa.”
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