Kigali: The Confederation of African Football (CAF) said Friday it was backing Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa of Bahrain as its candidate to succeed Sepp Blatter as president of world body FIFA.
"The executive committee decided that CAF will give full support to Sheikh Salman with his candidacy for FIFA presidency," CAF first vice-president Suketu Patel told reporters following an executive committee meeting.
CAF second vice-president Almamy Kabele Camara said the decision to support the 50-year-old Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president had been reached "unanimously" at the meeting during the African Nations Championship tournament in Kigali.
CAF has 54 votes in the FIFA election, the most of any of the world's regional governing bodies, and four of the five contenders came to the Rwandan capital seeking to win the support of the African continent. CAF's decision to back Sheikh Salman came despite having a candidate from the continent in South African businessman Tokyo Sexwale, a former anti-apartheid prisoner alongside Nelson Mandela.
The other challengers in the vote for football's top job on February 26 are UEFA's number two Gianni Infantino of Switzerland, Frenchman Jerome Champagne, a former assistant secretary-general of FIFA, and Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan. Speaking before CAF's decision, Sexwale insisted that he would not quit the FIFA race despite being widely criticised on the continent for his campaign. However, he has raised the possibility of some candidates joining forces.
Prince Ali, the only candidate not in Kigali, recently denounced a possible attempt to breach the election rules and called for an investigation after CAF signed a January 15 agreement with the AFC to organise tournaments and programmes for technical development. Sheikh Salman and Infantino are seen as the frontrunners and the Bahraini hinted that a deal between the two could be possible ahead of the vote.
In Sheikh Salman's election manifesto, he has argued for more than 32 national sides to play at each World Cup. He has also reiterated his support for Qatar's controversial hosting of the tournament in 2022.
During his campaign the sheikh has been criticised by human rights groups who accuse him of involvement in the oppression of pro-democratic demonstrations in 2011 in Bahrain and the use of torture, claims which he denies.
All 209 FIFA member associations will vote at a special congress in Zurich for a successor for Blatter, who stepped down and was subsequently banned from FIFA, following corruption allegations which have engulfed football's governing body. The world football body is reeling from US corruption charges against 39 football officials, marketing executives and two companies.
Swiss investigators are looking into the attribution of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar respectively. Blatter is separately under formal investigation in Switzerland for criminal mismanagement over a 'disloyal' $2 million payment made to UEFA president Michel Platini. Blatter and Platini were banned from all football activity for eight years by FIFA's ethics tribunal in December.