By all estimates, though, it
is a two-man race between Infantino and Sheikh Salman with Prince Ali playing the role of the spoiler.
The FIFA membership consists of 209 national federations. No one is given a chance of winning on the first ballot when two-thirds of vote (139) is required. Not even Sepp Blatter in May against Prince Ali won on the first ballot, so 105 votes will be the magic number, after the first round.
Sam Borden the New York Times took a survey of FIFA insiders and reported that Sheikh Salman has the slight edge with about 80-90 votes, Mr. Infantino at 70-90 votes, Prince Ali around 30 votes and Sexwale and Champagne going nowhere at around five votes, the exact number of nominating letters they needed to get into the race in the first place.
Only a handful of federations have announced their plans, among them the seven Central American federations who form UNCAF and are backing Infantino. While it has been suggested that bloc votes that have dominated FIFA politics for years and polluted the landscape are out, the voting strengths of each confederation give a good idea of the dynamics in the race.
54 Africa (CAF)
53 UEFA (Europe)
46 Asia (AFC)
10 South America (Conmebol)
Skeikh Salman's base of support is in Africa and Asia, where he is the president of the AFC. The membership of the two confederations alone totals 100 votes. UEFA, where Infantino serves as secretary general, Concacaf and Conmebol (which has confirmed it will vote as a vote) would seem to be Infantino strongholds and total 98 votes.
If those five confederations voted as blocs, that would make Oceania with 11 members -- most tiny Pacific islands -- the deciding vote in the race. (If you think you're heard that before, Oceania, via the vote -- or more specifically the abstention -- of its president, Charlie Dempsey, famously threw the 2006 World Cup hosting rights, now under investigation more generally by U.S. authorities, to Germany.)
The key will not be the votes in the first round, but those in second and subsequent rounds after the candidate with lowest vote total drops out.
That makes Prince Ali's support critical. in May, he received 73 votes -- including that of U.S. Soccer. The majority was believed to have come from UEFA, where Infantino will be the favored son in the absence of his suspended boss, Michel Platini. This time, Prince Ali's support is less solid but likely spread across multiple confederations.
What happens to Prince Ali's support if he pulls out after the second or third round? Does he throw his support behind fellow royal and AFC colleague Sheikh Salman or does he spurn him? After all, Prince Ali would have beaten Blatter in May if Sheikh Salman had supported him, not the embattled incumbent, and there would have been no need for a special election.
Both Prince Ali and Sheikh Salman also come out of the Middle East, where soccer politics are, to say the least, interesting. Then there is the matter of geopolitics themselves in the region. Sheikh Salman is a member of the Sunni royal family in a country that has a Shiite majority.
Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran deteriorated following the execution of Saudi Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and the subsequent firebombing the Saudi consulate by angry Iranian protesters in Tehran. Bahrain joined the Saudis in breaking off diplomatic relations with Iran. The rift has already spilled back over to the soccer arena. Saudi clubs are refusing to play Asian Champions League matches in Iran.
That puts Iranian soccer federation president (and AFC vice president) Ali Kafashian in a bind. In November, before the execution of Sheikh Nimr, he came out in support of Sheikh Salman. Does that support hold, given the changing political climate? And does Sheikh Salman hold the support of other Iranian allies in the region?