It's less than six weeks until the FIFA presidential election, and the gloves have come off.
It all began with the announcement last week in Rwanda of a memorandum of agreement
between the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and
Confederation of African Football (CAF) and "pledges cooperation on soccer and social development" in the next four years.
But the two signatories to the
agreement were AFC president Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa
and CAF president Issa Hayatou
. Shaikh Salman happens to be running for FIFA president, and Hayatou has been acting
FIFA president since Sepp Blatter
was suspended and later banned. Prince Ali bin Hussein
of Jordan, another of the five candidates for FIFA president, immediately cried
foul, writing to FIFA's Ad Hoc Electoral Committee and asking it to examine the deal that he views as a way of engineering a "bloc vote" in the FIFA election.
The math is simple. Between
the AFC and CAF, their members total 100 votes, almost enough to ensure their candidate -- presumably Shaikh Salman -- wins if every member of the two confederations votes as a bloc.
FIFA Electorate: VOTES CONFEDERATION:
54 Africa (CAF)
53 UEFA (Europe)
46 Asia (AFC)
10 South America (Conmebol) Total: 209
Shaikh Salman quickly fired back, calling it "an unnecessary spat between FIFA candidates" and stating, "I am astonished
about my friend's comments, which are wholly dismissed and entirely inaccurate."
Shaikh Salman's position: an agreement had been in the works for months, and it was similar to other
cooperation agreements the AFC and CAF has reached in the past and the AFC has in force with other confederations. On that point, Shaikh Salman is right. Prince Ali seems a little too sensitive about
the signing of a cooperation agreement.
(To deflect criticism -- or perhaps free himself to campaign for Shaikh Salman -- Hayatou on Monday announced he was temporarily stepping down as
But the bigger picture still holds. Prince Ali wouldn't be firing away if he didn't think Shaikh Salman's bid was gaining momentum, and an AFC-CAF alliance would put
Shaikh Salman in a solid position.
Even Sheikh Salman himself said he was the favorite, telling Press Association Sport
"I seem to be the favorite to win the election, judging by the media, member associations and sports betting companies alike and I am honored to be in that position. I have been through a few
elections before and I won't go into an election unless I have a good chance. The encouragement I have had has been a big boost. If you talk to the key people -- the confederations and the member
associations -- there is a good understanding more or less on who is the favorite to succeed."
Shaikh Salman's presidential bid is not without controversy. Bahraini human rights groups
have accused Shaikh Salman, as head of the Bahrain Football Association, the government's general secretary of youth and sport and a member of the ruling royal family, of helping to identify athletes
involved in the 2011 protests by the Shia Muslim majority against the Sunni rulers.
The Associated Press reported
that more than 150 athletes, coaches and referees were jailed after a
special committee, headed by Shaikh Salman, picked them out in photos of the protests. They included six Bahraini national team players. In addition, six Shiite soccer clubs were fined $20,000 each
and suspended from the national league.
Shaikh Salman has denied having anything to do with any special committee -- "When people talk about skeletons in the closet, my closet is
clear," he told the PA -- and passed a FIFA integrity test before his candidacy could go forward.
But Swiss governance professor Mark Pieth
, who worked on FIFA's original
reform proposals, issued a warning on Sunday about a member of an “autocratic dynasty” becoming the next FIFA president, telling Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung,
“We need an outcry from the
209 soccer federations. They should ask, 'Is this what we want? Really? Is Salman a credible agent of democracy and a fresh start? Is he suitable?'"
Other questions exist about Shaikh
Salman and whether he quashed an audit
that looked into bribery, non-transparency and tax evasion within the AFC in the
aftermath of the fall of his predecessor, Qatari Mohamed bin Hamman
. But Shaikh Salman is adamant he's done nothing wrong. Again from his interview with the PA: "There has been an integrity
check and I don't have anything to defend myself about."
Shaikh Salman might have done nothing wrong he has to defend himself about, but he will have to answer for the confederation
system. It's ironic he says he stands for change with FIFA yet might to be headed to victory thanks to business as usual.
There is a
reason every one of the six FIFA confederation presidents -- in the case of Concacaf and Conmebol, the last three presidents -- have been arrested, indicted, banned from soccer or reprimanded for
corruption or ethics violations in the last five years.
The power of the confederation presidents to deliver bloc votes gives them enormous power and has made them susceptible to being
influenced. Until the power of the confederations and their presidents is diminished, soccer's corruption problems will continue.
Shaikh Salman and Hayatou delivered enough of the AFC and
CAF vote that Blatter survived a challenge from Prince Ali in the May election that came just two days after Swiss police arrested seven FIFA officials on U.S. corruption charges. By any other
measure, Blatter should have been run out of office. (As it was, he quit days later.)
And it looks like Shaikh Salman and Hayatou might deliver enough votes that Shaikh Salman succeeds