On eve of FIFA election, key African vote is hard to call
By Brian Homewood
ZURICH (Reuters) - Africa could hold the key to FIFA's presidential election, but sharply conflicting versions emerged on Thursday of who would get the continent's 54 votes in the contest for the new head of world soccer.
The Confederation of African Football (CAF) last month backed Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa of Bahrain as its candidate in Friday's election to replace disgraced FIFA president Sepp Blatter in the wake of a major corruption scandal.
On the eve of the vote, CAF vice-president Suketu Patel said he expected virtually all the African football associations to follow the recommendation. At a CAF conference on Thursday, African delegates were presented with an 11-point programme explaining why they should vote for Salman, who is one of five candidates.
"In the conference, they all came up to the podium and said they would support CAF in its decision," Patel told reporters.
"This is a democratic process but the point remains that CAF will vote as a block; whether it is 53 or 50, that is the question, not whether it is 53 or 26. That is the key here. CAF stands united in its decision."
Africa accounts for more than a quarter of the 207 federations eligible to vote on Friday. But in past elections, African countries have usually voted contrary to their confederation’s recommendation.
Behind the scenes, several delegates privately told Reuters that the African votes could be split several ways.
On Monday, Sheikh Salman's Swiss rival Gianni Infantino said after a visit to South Africa that he was confident of taking more than half the African votes, having talked to leaders from the continent who, he said, had looked him in the eye.
Liberian football boss Musa Bility added to the uncertainty on Thursday, by predicting that 27 African votes would go to Jordan's Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, another of the candidates.
"I am very confident of the number of voters Ali is going to get in this election; there is a lot of drama to come," he told Reuters. "Ali is a dark horse, he is going to be the surprise package of this election."
Of the remaining candidates, South Africa's Tokyo Sexwale failed to win his own continent's backing after running a lacklustre campaign, while France's Jerome Champagne is also seen as an outsider.
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)