Geneva — Two FIFA voters have defied African soccer leaders by endorsing rival candidates in the presidential election for Sepp Blatter's successor.
South Sudan pledged its vote for Gianni Infantino, the UEFA general secretary from Switzerland, and Liberia declared for former FIFA vice president Prince Ali of Jordan on Saturday.
They followed Egypt, which Prince Ali said publicly promised its vote to him on Friday, hours after a key move by the Confederation of African Football's executive committee. It urged Africa's 54 FIFA voters to support Asian confederation president Sheikh Salman of Bahrain in the Feb. 26 election.
Africa, led by FIFA acting president Issa Hayatou of Cameroon, is a main battleground in the race to replace the suspended Blatter. Widespread support there for Sheikh Salman could lift him to the biggest tally in the first round of voting in a ballot that has five candidates.
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Independence shown by South Sudan and Liberia suggests again that claims of unanimous continent-wide support are rarely true in FIFA elections.
"We are supporting Mr. Gianni Infantino for the FIFA presidency," South Sudan federation president Chabur Goc Alei told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "Any (voter) has the right to choose whoever they want. It is not compulsory from CAF telling any member association he has to vote for Sheikh Salman."
Infantino gained South Sudan's support after meeting with Alei and federation leaders in the capital city Juba on Saturday.
"He will be the first of many others in this great continent," said Infantino, who has voting pledges in four of FIFA's six continental confederations.
Prince Ali's campaign team on Saturday published a three-page letter of endorsement signed by Liberia federation president Musa Bility.
Bility wrote that Prince Ali "represents real change," while other candidates were "not even prepared to criticize" the FIFA system.
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"He demonstrated this by standing against President Sepp Blatter when it was unthinkable to do so," Bility wrote, referring to the prince's 133-73 loss to Blatter last May. Days later, Blatter announced his exit plans under pressure from American and Swiss federal investigations of corruption in international soccer.
"Deeply honoured by the support of Liberia as we work across the world to bring the change needed for FIFA's future," Prince Ali wrote on his Twitter account.
Bility was himself an applicant last October in the presidential contest. He then failed an integrity test judged by FIFA's election monitoring committee, which did not publish reasons for barring him.
Sheikh Salman has been seen as the election front-runner with public support from the executive committees of the African and Asian confederations. The two continents have 100 of the 209 FIFA members.
Infantino has been backed by the leadership of UEFA, CONMEBOL, and the small CONCACAF confederation.
South Sudan's Alei said Infantino's pledge of financial support from FIFA for smaller regional groups to organize youth tournaments was key to his federation's endorsement.
"The proposal of Gianni is the only solution for the future of football in Africa and the whole world," Alei told the AP.
The other candidates are former FIFA official Jerome Champagne of France, and South African businessman Tokyo Sexwale, whose campaign has been consistently resisted by fellow Africans in FIFA.