Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa may just have shot himself damagingly in the foot by launching an attack on Gianni Infantino’s development spending pledges in pursuit of the FIFA presidency.
The world federation’s 209 member associations vote on February 26 in Zurich between five contenders for a successor to disgraced Sepp Blatter and the head of the Asian confederation has allowed his nerves to show, a hint of weakness which could cost him dear.
Over the past fortnight FIFA’s main contenders have been targeting the Caribbean and central America, considered a region wide open to persuasion now the iron grip of Jack Warner and his pals has been prised loose by the FBI.
Infantino, general secretary of European federation UEFA, had taken advantage of the opportunity to promise – among other sweeteners – a massive expansion of the FIFA development budget.
That was a warming message not only to the Americas but to the rest of the developing world nations whose delegates will throng the FIFA Congress corridors.
Sheikh Salman was not impressed. Without openly naming Infantino, he warned that promises such as those offered by his Swiss rival would render FIFA bankrupt within two years.
This was an intriguing salvo.
Firstly, and self-evidently, Sheikh Salman had allowed Infantino to get under his skin which, in itself, suggests fading confidence in his own ability to carry the day;
secondly, he broke with the usual convention of candidates focusing positively on their own programmes rather than drawing attention to those of their rivals;
thirdly, Sheikh Salman was conceding his opponents’ right to attack him directly in retaliation (and he is vulnerable on several levels); and
fourthly, perhaps most important of all, Sheikh Salman’s criticism of Infantino’s figures sent out a loud and clear message that, under him, the days of Blatterite largesse to the developing world could become a relic of FIFA financial history.
This is not the way to woo votes among perhaps half the FIFA membership.
[By the way, Sheikh Salman’s promise that he would not take a salary as FIFA president suggested he wanted to avoid transparency on remuneration – another Very Bad Signal – and served as a reminder that he enjoys a privileged personal lifestyle as the scion of a royal household in an old-rich Gulf state (Bahrain).]
Sheikh Salman has been considered the front-running favourite on the basis of, firstly, solid – albeit not unanimous – support from within his own Asian constituency and, secondly, the rest of world’s supposed antipathy to the idea of power falling into the hands of anyone from Blatter-bashing UEFA.
Sheikh Salman remains in a strong position. But, clearly, not as strong as it was.
Later this week the African confederation’s executive meets to decide its own position. It would be a surprise indeed if it failed to endorse Sheikh Salman after the recent, cosy, CAF-AFC development deal. But what Africa may promise and what it may deliver are unrelated.
As has been pointed out here and elsewhere, Africa never votes as a block. Sheikh Salman’s attack on Infantino may just have persuaded some associations in CAF to look further afield. And not only within CAF.
** The five candidates for the FIFA presidency are: Prince Ali bin Al Hussein (Jordan), Jerome Champagne (France), Gianni Infantino (Switzerland, UEFA general secretary), Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa (Bahrain, AFC president) and Tokyo Sexwale (South Africa).