Kigali — Sheikh Salman's bid to succeed Sepp Blatter got a major boost Friday when the African soccer confederation announced it was backing the Bahraini royal for FIFA president.
Following a meeting of its executive committee in Rwanda, the Confederation of African Football said that it would "fully support" the Asian soccer confederation president, and urged its 54 member countries to vote for him.
The decision significantly improved Salman's hopes of replacing Blatter as the head of the scandal-scarred soccer body. Salman and UEFA secretary general Gianni Infantino are seen as the strongest candidates to win the Feb. 26 election. The biggest continental grouping among the 209 voting members is Africa.
"I am deeply honored to have earned the trust of many of our African friends at this crucial stage of the campaigning effort," Sheikh Salman said in a statement.
The endorsement from CAF followed a similar statement of support for Salman from the Asian Football Confederation, which has 46 FIFA members who will vote.
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"Naturally, I am confident that I now have a reasonably strong position to work from with such support," he said.
While both Salman and Infantino are expected to get good support from their home continents, Asia and Europe, respectively, Africa is seen as the bloc that could clinch the vote for one of them.
CAF's announcement was made by vice presidents Suketu Patel and Almamy Kabele Camara at a news conference that lasted about a minute in a five-star hotel in Kigali, where the CAF executive committee had met earlier Friday. Patel and Camara left without taking questions.
Although CAF executives declared their support for Sheikh Salman, there is nothing compelling African countries to vote for him. However, many are expected to follow CAF's recommendation.
"While respecting the principle of democracy, the sovereignty, and latitude of each member association to vote for the candidate of its choice, the executive committee urges all the 54 member associations ... to reserve their votes for Sheikh Salman," CAF said in a later statement.
Infantino, who campaigned widely in Africa late last year, said he was still confident that African countries would vote for him.
"I have received a lot of individual support and the discussions that I have had with African associations make me confident that I have a chance to win," Infantino said. "I am optimistic because I speak with the people and it's not the CAF executive that will decide the individual votes."
By backing Salman, CAF also turned its back on the only African candidate in the five-man field, South African businessman Tokyo Sexwale. Sexwale, a mining tycoon and former political prisoner during apartheid who was jailed alongside Nelson Mandela, had already been under pressure for a lackluster campaign. It was speculated he might withdraw if he was snubbed by his home continent and there was confusion over his candidacy when CAF said it had noted his withdrawal from the race, while Sexwale denied he was dropping out.
"There are no elections in Kigali," Sexwale said. "What we have seen is the assembly of the CAF executive who have made a recommendation. There are 54 federations in Africa that will make the decision to vote and not CAF."
The confusion apparently arose from a letter Sexwale sent to CAF's executive committee asking that he not be considered for their endorsement as it was clear he didn't have the body's support. He didn't withdraw from the FIFA election.
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"I will stay in the race till election day," Sexwale said, although his chances appear non-existent. Even South African Football Association spokesman Dominic Chimhavi told the AP: "It does not make sense to support him without CAF backing."
The other candidates in the FIFA election are Prince Ali of Jordan and former FIFA executive Jerome Champagne of France. Salman, Infantino, Sexwale and Champagne were all in Rwanda to campaign. Prince Ali had decided against traveling, his campaign team said.
Interim FIFA President Issa Hayatou, who is also the president of CAF, attended the meeting in Rwanda but had previously delegated the region's FIFA election responsibilities to the two African vice presidents.
However, Hayatou, the longtime head of African soccer, had hinted in an interview with French newspaper L'Equipe on Thursday that CAF would back Salman and ignore Sexwale.
"If we decide to support Salman, is it a crime? Who can prevent us from doing this?" Hayatou was quoted as saying.
CAF's move was bound to bring more scrutiny on a co-operation agreement signed last month between the AFC and CAF. The agreement — a month before the election — was criticized by Prince Ali, who accused Salman of trying to engineer a bloc of African votes in his favor against election rules.
Prince Ali asked FIFA to investigate.