Fifa presidential election: Farce is fast approaching as Sheikh Salman pledges to hold up reform process

Bahraini candidate with dubious human rights record is favourite to win vote

The world’s game today stands on the precipice of an election decision which would heap more derision on its so-called governing body, with Bahraini Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa the favourite to be voted Fifa’s new president despite his dubious human rights record and boasts that he will circumvent reforms put in place to make the organisation more transparent.

The best that can be said of such an outcome is that a victory for the scion of the despotic Bahrain royal family is that it would discredit Fifa enough to destabilise the entire organisation. But the dissolution of Fifa and creation of an entirely new body would, though necessary, take years. All that can be hoped ahead of this afternoon’s vote at Fifa House in Zurich is that Gianni Infantino, once right-hand man of the disgraced Uefa president Michel Platini and Salman’s strongest challenger, musters the votes which might let him succeed Sepp Blatter.

Such an outcome looked less likely as the clock ticked down to election day. Despite a campaign which has been no less than an embarrassment, Sheikh Salman will receive most of the 54 African federations’ votes, Ghana FA’s Kwesi Nyantakyi told the BBC. He is also expected to draw most, though not all, of Asia’s 46 votes, and seemingly Russia’s. Infantino will draw most Europeans, though not all of them, and harbours hopes of securing some Africans his way.

The situation is fluid, with the North and Central American and Caribbean confederation (Concacaf) certainly not voting en bloc. Barbados representative Randy Harris said that four of the five candidates have support in the region, despite the federation itself supporting Infantino. 

A two-thirds majority of the 207 votes in the first round will win the election. That is highly unlikely, so the winning candidate will be looking for a simple majority thereafter. The candidate with the lowest number of votes will drop out at each stage until a majority is found, which means that the election could drag well into this evening. An hour and a half has been put aside for each round. Also standing are Jérôme Champagne, a Blatter adviser for 11 years; Jordanian Prince Ali bin al-Hussein; and South African Tokyo Sexwale – all outsiders.

On the eve of the election the candidates engaged in a rush around the federations to press the value of their candidacies. Salman contributed actively to this circus, despite a campaign which had been little less than a PR disaster, and courted popularity with those who ride the Fifa gravy train by promising to override reforms designed to limit the number of Fifa committees from 26 to nine.

The slimming-down is intended to make Fifa less cumbersome and free the organisation to invest in independent committee members, with as many as 20 new external appointees planned. But Salman said he would restore the old structures. 

“One of the main concerns, talking to people around the globe, is about bringing down the number of the committees from 26 to nine,” he said. “I can promise you, if I am elected, that the number of committees serving in Fifa will not change – whether through commissions or task forces or whatever. I’m sure we need most of you around.”

Salman denied in a TV interview last month that Bahraini footballers had been tortured when pro-democracy protests were brutally quelled by the country’s security services five years ago. But a report by the German broadcaster WRD on Sunday, quoted yesterday by the Fifa specialist James Corbett for the Sporting Intelligence website, cited a former member of Bahrain’s national team, Hakeem al-Oraibi, as saying he had been beaten. Oraibi stated: “They spent three hours hitting me hard on my legs, while saying, ‘We will break your bones, we will destroy your future, you will never play football again with these legs’.” 

The Reporters Without Borders organisation also called on Fifa not to elect Salman, highlighting the imprisonment of at least nine journalists as well as five bloggers and online activists in Bahrain because of their journalistic work. 

Salman directed his fire on his opponent Infantino, the general secretary of Uefa, accusing him of offering profligate plans for Fifa. The Blatter strategy of spending big in developing countries which might vote for him has survived in Infantino’s proposals. He would raise Fifa’s annual financial distribution to each nation from $250,000 to $1.25m (£895,000), with $10m to cover football development in every region and $1m to the Caribbean, Africa and parts of Asia for youth tournaments. 

Infantino returned fire by pointing to financial results which showed yesterday that Uefa revenues had topped €2bn. Catcalling, intrigue and vote-buying claims on a dank Zurich day. The talk of a clean, fresh start has already been reduced to dust.

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