ZURICH (AP) — Soccer leaders have started voting in Friday’s election for a new FIFA president, with Asian confederation head Sheikh Salman of Bahrain the favorite to succeed Sepp Blatter.
Four candidates are in the contest after South African businessman Tokyo Sexwale withdrew at the end of a lively, funny and unscripted speech to the 207 eligible voters.
“My campaign is suspended as of now,” said Sexwale, who pledged himself ready to serve the winner and received a standing ovation from many delegates.
Sexwale, a former anti-apartheid activist who turns 63 on March 5, revealed during his 15-minute speech that his son was born three days earlier.
Sheikh Salman is expected to have the biggest tally in the first round vote, which could last two hours. A two-thirds majority of 138 is needed for outright victory.
Backed by most voters in Asia and Africa, the Bahraini royal would likely have the momentum for victory if he gets at least 104 votes. That would be a winning simple majority in the second round.
Still, a strong late push was made by Gianni Infantino, the Swiss general secretary of European governing body UEFA, who was already expected to be Sheikh Salman’s main rival.
Infantino spoke in several languages without notes and portrayed himself as a leader for the world, not just his own wealthy confederation.
“We have to get Europe to do much more,” Infantino said.
The other candidates are Prince Ali of Jordan, who conceded to Blatter after a first-round vote last year, and former FIFA official Jerome Champagne of France.
“You do not deserve leadership marked by controversy … empty promises, fear and condemnation,” Prince Ali said in the first address by the candidates.
Speaking right after the prince, Sheikh Salman quickly aimed a barb at Prince Ali for reading from notes.
The sheikh won applause when he said it was “better to speak from the heart rather than be dictated through a paper.”
The winner will take over a wealthy but vulnerable soccer body rocked by escalating corruption scandals.
Blatter was re-elected for a fifth term in May but bowed to pressure four days later and announced he would resign. Blatter was subsequently banned for six years for financial mismanagement and was absent Friday after 40 years as a fixture at FIFA meetings.
Before electing FIFA’s first new president since 1998, 87 percent of the 207 voting federations passed wide-ranging reforms to protect against corruption and curb the powers of its new president.
Those include preventing presidents from serving more than three four-year terms, reducing their powers and guaranteeing more independent oversight for FIFA’s decision-making and spending. The executive committee will be renamed the FIFA Council with more female members while there will be stricter integrity checks will also control top officials.
The vote was taken after the Palestine federation argued for a delay to let the new president lead the process. Blatter ordered the reform review in June after American and Swiss federal investigations hit FIFA.
FIFA and its lawyers hope the reform will help show U.S. prosecutors the soccer body is serious about changing its culture, and protect its status as a victim in the American investigation. A total of 41 people and marketing agencies have been indicted or made guilty pleas, and Blatter is a target.
Still, the new era FIFA hopes for will not easily escape the fallout from Blatter’s scandal-hit leadership.
“We will set up a FIFA that is more transparent,” interim president Issa Hayatou said in a speech. “It will win back the respect of everybody throughout the world.”
Sheikh Salman has been the most criticized and scrutinized candidate through the four-month campaign.
The 50-year-old former Bahrain soccer federation president has strongly denied claims that, after Arab Spring protests in 2011, he helped identify national team players to be detained. They later alleged abuse and torture by government security forces.
The winner of Friday’s vote will become the ninth elected president in FIFA’s 112-year history.
FIFA’s financial problems provoked by the corruption crisis, and ailing staff morale, were detailed by acting secretary general Markus Kattner.
“We are currently $550 million behind our goals,” Kattner said, reminding of a conservative budget target of $5 billion revenue from the 2018 World Cup in Russia. “(There is) general uncertainty that is affecting morale of the FIFA team.”
FIFA has not signed any new World Cup sponsors since the 2014 tournament in Brazil, and has acknowledged that potential deals were on hold until after the election.
FIFA will publish its 2015 financial report next month. It is expected to show a loss of at least $100 million, dropping cash reserves to $1.4 billion.
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