Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa head of the Asian confederation has friends in very high places.
On the Friday evening after Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini were ambushed by the Swiss Attorney-General’s posse at the Home of FIFA, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah realised he had some sharp thinking to do.
The Kuwaiti was one of the new arrivals on the world federation’s executive committee last May but his influence extended far beyond that timeline through his powerful puppeteering in the Olympic movement in general* and across Asian sport in general.
Initially he had considered a run for the FIFA presidency in 2019 when Blatter would be leaving at last. Then, after the turmoil in May, he had maintained that prospect but now in return for assisting his new friend Platini into power next February.
Plan B was to remain in the exco background while employing his influence to help Bahrain’s Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa into the presidency; just as he had helped him secure the Asian confederation’s top job in 2013.
But now, suddenly, the prospects for Platini were looking shaky after the revelations that he had accepted an alleged rogue payment from Blatter’s FIFA.
On that Friday evening of September 25 Sheikh Ahmad was still insisting he was right behind Platini. The next morning he was revising his opinion. Less than a week later and the first hints were emerging that his associate Sheikh Salman was poised to exploit Platini’s fall from grace.
Platini had not yet launched a manifesto and his credibility had been undermined by his inability to offer a plausible explanation as to why the final payment for work commissioned by FIFA between 1999 and 2002 did not hit his bank account until nine years later.
The other heavyweight contenders, at that point, were South Korean Chung Mong-joon, and his fellow former Asian vice-president of FIFA, Prince Ali bin Al Hussein of Jordan.
But Sheikh Salman understood that Chung would soon be banned from football by the FIFA ethics committee and he was confident Asia would lean to him rather than Prince Ali (as it had done in wresting the FIFA vice-presidency for himself last year).
Qatar would certainly welcome the prospect of his presidency.
Sheikh Salman has been a firm supporter of the Gulf state’s World Cup hosting and chaired the calendar committee which recommended the revolutionary interruption of the world’s domestic schedules to accommodate a winter tournament in November/December 2022.
The Qataris were also aware that Platini’s withdrawal from the FIFA presidency race would prompt demands from western European leagues, angry at the prospect of the 2022 chaos he had created, to review the hosting award.
With the nominations deadline fast approaching on October 26 and Platini fading fast, have come further indications that Sheikh Salman has decided he will stand – and that he has support from even within Europe.
Europe’s remaining seven members on the FIFA executive committee travel on to Zurich for an emergency meeting next Tuesday. They will be expecting to consider an alternative election candidate to Platini.
Perhaps the most viable alternative might not be a European – though whether controversy over Sheikh Salman’s pre-FIFA activities can withstand the media scrutiny assailing Blatter and Platini is another matter.
* Sheikh Ahmad is a member of the International Olympic Committee as well as president of the Association of Olympic Committees, the Olympic Council of Asia and the development-supporting Olympic Solidarity operation.