ZURICH The five men vying for the leadership of world football's scandal-hit governing body made their final pitches on Thursday in a contest that could hinge on who secures the bulk of Africa's 54 votes.
Delegates from more than 200 countries will elect a new president on Friday to succeed Sepp Blatter of Switzerland, two days after Blatter and European football chief Michel Platini lost their appeals against bans for ethics violations.
Whoever takes over from Blatter, who ran FIFA for 17 years like a globe-trotting head of state, will inherit a very different job with a focus on crisis management, after dozens of international football officials were indicted in the United States last year for racketeering, money-laundering and bribery.
African countries make up more than a quarter of the 207 football associations eligible to vote. On the final day of campaigning, there were sharply conflicting versions of how they would cast their ballots.
While the vice-president of their continental federation said virtually all would back Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa of Bahrain, several delegates told Reuters the African vote could be split.
Switzerland's Gianni Infantino has said he is confident of winning more than half the African votes, while Liberian football chief Musa Bility predicted 27 of them would go to Jordan's Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein.
"The world is waiting and watching – this is the biggest milestone in the history of FIFA. It will decide if FIFA goes ahead as we want or if it spirals down," Prince Ali told delegates.
South Africa's Tokyo Sexwale described FIFA as "broken" and a damaged brand, though he also referred to some of those felled in the scandal as "friends we have lost".
Infantino repeated his promise to offer each of FIFA's members $5 million to invest in the sport over four years, more than doubling the $2.05 million each federation got from 2011-14. He said this could be achieved "easily" by tackling the cost structure of FIFA.
Bahrain's Salman, who along with Infantino is seen as a front-runner, was more cautious, speaking of a 'realistic' increase in funding.
"For me, if the numbers are right, we can increase – but I am not ready to mortgage FIFA’s future in winning an election."
French outsider Jerome Champagne took a shot at Infantino’s globe-trotting campaign by saying the election had been "unbalanced".
"I did not have a private jet to visit you, take a photo and then tweet and say I have got the endorsement," he said to laughter from delegates.
The two favourites were both upbeat.
"I am feeling good and very positive. The support I am receiving fills me with confidence,” Infantino told Reuters in an email while travelling between meetings.
A spokesman for his Bahraini rival said: "Sheikh Salman is very confident about tomorrow’s vote."
FIFA was plunged into turmoil by the corruption scandal that broke last year, beginning with a dawn raid to arrest delegates at a Swiss luxury hotel.
Criminal investigations led by the United States and Switzerland have spanned dozens of countries, focusing largely on the awarding of lucrative broadcast and marketing rights to the world's most popular sport. They are also examining the process by which FIFA awarded the next two World Cups to Russia and Qatar.
Acting FIFA president Issa Hayatou appealed to FIFA members in what he called one of the most important weeks in the history of global football, urging them to support a package of reforms on governance. These include introducing term limits for top officials and requiring them to disclose their earnings.
"I urge each of you to support the reforms in full here this week, and then to implement them to their entirety at home," Hayatou said in an address aimed at the six confederations that run football around the world.
"This will send a strong message that we have listened and that we are taking the action necessary to give football the foundation, and protection, it needs for the future."
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)
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Updated Date: Feb 25, 2016 23:46 PM