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Infantino triumphs with American help as FIFA blocks break down

Newly elected FIFA President Gianni Infantino addresses a news conference during the Extraordinary FIFA Congress in Zurich, Switzerland February 26, 2016. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann
Newly elected FIFA President Gianni Infantino addresses a news conference during the Extraordinary FIFA Congress in Zurich, Switzerland February 26, 2016. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

By Simon Evans

ZURICH (Reuters) - The United States played a key role in the intense lobbying that saw Gianni Infantino elected FIFA president on Friday, beating Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, as the old political allegiances at world football's governing body collapsed.

The traditional voting in blocks along continental lines, characteristic of previous FIFA elections, broke down significantly giving outsiders Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan and France’s Jerome Champagne 34 votes.

Neither Prince Ali nor Champagne had been promised support from any of the continental confederations.

In the second round of voting UEFA general secretary Infantino picked up 27 extra votes while Asian confederation chief Salman managed just three more, with Ali and Champagne losing a combined 30 votes.

In between the two voting sessions, U.S. football president Sunil Gulati was seen deep in conversation with Prince Ali and they walked out of sight of the Congress floor to continue for several minutes.

“We couldn’t say anything to Prince Ali's supporters until we had spoken to Prince Ali himself and it is safe to say that in that intervening period we had a good chat with Prince Ali and also Gianni and the three of us," Gulati said after Infantino had made his first speech as president.

The American said his plan had always been to switch to Infantino when the crunch came.

"We told Gianni last night that we would support Prince Ali but also gave him the assurance that when it mattered we would be with him."

That was not surprising but less anticipated was the role the American and CONCACAF -- the body representing North and Central America and the Caribbean -- allies, including Canada's football chief, played in turning the vote towards Infantino.

Gulati, assisted by lawyer Samir Gandhi, who has been working on FIFA and CONCACAF reforms, worked the Congress floor and assisted Infantino in persuading several federations to switch their votes to the eventual winner.

STRONG ALLIANCE

"It is clear that there was a strong alliance between Europe and North America and the Anglo-Saxon world,” Champagne told Reuters.

The once united Caribbean block of 25 votes, expected to go to Salman, was split in the first round among the candidates, with several switching to Infantino in the second vote.

One Caribbean official, a supporter of the Bahraini, was flabbergasted at the outcome.

“What the hell happened there?” he said as he left the Congress hall in an ugly mood. "I'm shocked".

Sources indicated that Cuba and the Dominican Republic were among those who switched to Infantino in round two, while in Asia a key number of Ali voters who had rebelled against their confederation president opted to go with the European candidate rather than Sheikh Salman.

Some federations, such as Kenya, made the switch directly from Salman to Infantino in the second round after they sensed the tide turning towards the UEFA general secretary, Kenyan official Nick Mwendwa said.

Liberian Musa Bility's prediction on Thursday of significant defections from the African Football Confederation's chosen candidate Salman to Ali proved accurate.

Gulati's lobbying effort was another example of American involvement in the FIFA crisis.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has indicted 41 officials and entities, including a number from the Miami-based CONCACAF, including former FIFA executive committee member New Yorker Chuck Blazer.

American law firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan are leading FIFA's internal investigation and helping them work with the DOJ and consultants Teneo have been hired to deal with public relations and management issues.

(Reporting by Simon Evans; editing by Ken Ferris)

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