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Final Fifa fight

...five contenders but it’s Sheikh vs Infantino
Friday, February 26, 2016
Candidates in the Fifa presidential election. From left are Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, Jerome Champagne, Sheikh Salman Al Khalifa, Tokyo Sexwale and Gianni Infantino. AP Photo

ZURICH—Whether it’s World Cup holder Germany or tiny island nations like Tonga, every country has the same power when it comes to choosing a Fifa president.

Fifa is an institution with more members than the United Nations and its emergency congress today will see 207 nations voting on the man—all five candidates are men— they want to rebuild the scandal-tarnished governing body.

Asian soccer confederation president Sheikh Salman is the favourite to be handed the task of succeeding Sepp Blatter, who led Fifa from 1998 until being banned from football by his own disciplinary body for financial wrongdoing. The ban, reduced to six years on appeal on Wednesday, prevents Blatter from overseeing the Zurich congress.

UEFA President Michel Platini, the former favourite for world soccer’s top job, is also excluded from the global game for six years for receiving 2 million Swiss francs ($2 million) in 2011, authorised by Blatter. The substitute in the election is European soccer’s top administrator, UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino.

When it comes to the vote today it’s a fight between Sheikh Salman and Infantino. Here is a look at the five candidates.

Sheikh Salman
The Bahraini royal, who leads the Asian Football Confederation, was quick to endorse Platini for the Fifa presidency last July and had never spoken of ambitions to run the global game. Now he is the favourite. Sheikh Salman entered the contest on deadline-day in October and adopted a low-key approach to canvassing, focusing on federation meetings away from the spotlight rather than parading in front of the media like Infantino.

The 50-year-old sheikh pledges to take the same approach to the Fifa presidency, shunning the limelight craved by Blatter and delegating power to specialists. There has been no formal campaign news conference, but he has given interviews.

Salman has strenuously denied wrongdoing and maintained that his sporting role was distant from Bahraini politics. Despite the resources of rights groups and rival candidates, no fresh allegations have been unearthed during the Fifa campaign. The majority of Salman’s support comes from the key continents of Asia and Africa.

Gianni Infantino
As UEFA general secretary, the 45-year-old Infantino is the most globally recognised of the candidates due to his role presiding over draws for European competitions.

Gaining most of Europe’s 53 votes was never going to be an issue. And with 500,000 euros of UEFA funding, Infantino has travelled the globe in search of endorsements. Infantino’s team is counting on home support from Europe, the 10-nation South American CONMEBOL bloc and 11 backers further north in CONCACAF. He lacks public support from Asian and Africa nations.

Born close to Blatter’s Swiss hometown, Infantino has drawn straight from the 17-year president’s playbook by pledging to bump up Fifa’s cash handouts to members. Salman said that plan would bankrupt Fifa, but Infantino has defended his calculations.

Infantino is also keen on expanding the World Cup from 32 to 40 teams and allowing regions to share World Cup hosting—giving more countries the chance of staging soccer’s showpiece.

Prince Ali
The Jordanian federation president denied Blatter a first-round victory in last May’s head-to-head election before standing aside for the incumbent. But Ali’s 73 votes were mostly gathered from European federations who now back Infantino. The 40-year-old Ali has been playing catch-up on the campaign trail, relying on regular media appearances to maintain his relevance while unable to flaunt endorsements.

Attempts to get rivals censored by Fifa have failed. Prince Ali complained to Fifa about a co-operation deal between the African federation headed by acting Fifa President Issa Hayatou and Salman’s Asia. Hayatou quickly relinquished some of his CAF powers.

The prince also launched a late, failed bid to get transparent booths used in the secret vote on Friday. Prince Ali spent four years on the Fifa inner sanctum as a vice president until May, but he has been the most outspoken of the five candidates about the governing body’s culture, criminality and damaged status.

Jerome Champagne
Champagne spent the first decade of the century at Fifa, working as deputy secretary general and international relations director before being forced out in 2010. Although vocal from the outside since then about the need to rebalance the power in world soccer while championing smaller and emerging federations, Champagne has still appeared to be a Blatter loyalist.

The former French diplomat failed to gain the five nominations required to stand last year, but he did meet the threshold this time. The five have never been named and he does not appear to have amassed votes through the campaign.

Champagne’s self-funded campaign has the personal touch rivals lack, such as tweeting himself, but fellow European Infantino has eclipsed him on the stump. The 57-year-old Champagne has criticised the financial viability of Infantino's cash pledges.

Tokyo Sexwale
The 62-year-old South African had the credentials to be a powerful voice in the campaign. A former Robben Island prisoner and anti-apartheid activist, Sexwale’s profile had grown leading Fifa’s attempts to resolve differences between Israeli and Palestinian soccer leaders.

But his election campaign had been a complete washout. Ghana federation president Kwesi Nyantakyi derided Sexwale’s pitch to CAF for focusing on his past friendship with Nelson Mandela and time on Robben Island over any plan for soccer. Scant discussion of Sexwale’s candidacy has been dominated by speculation about when he would withdraw. It’s yet to happen.

The vote
Kuwait and Indonesia are banned from having a say in the Fifa election due to government interference in the federations’ independence, leaving 207 voters.

A two-thirds majority of 138 is required to win in a first round of voting. If that target is not met, a simple majority of over 50 per cent —104—is necessary from the second round. The lowest-ranked candidate is eliminated from subsequent rounds. From Fifa’s founding in 1904, there were no contested elections until Stanley Rous was elected in 1961. The Englishman was unseated by Joao Havelange in the 1974 vote.

Havelange led Fifa unchallenged for 24 years. The Brazilian won re-election for the final time in 1994 before being succeeded four years later by Blatter. The 79-year-old Swiss won two of his five elections unopposed.