FIFA presidential candidates making final pitches for votes

ZURICH (AP) — All five FIFA candidates darted across Zurich in a final push to secure votes in Friday’s presidential election.

On a tour of regional confederations on Thursday, election favorite Sheikh Salman told North American members he would find ways to avoid cutting the number of coveted committee places — positions which carry expenses-paid meetings in Zurich.

The pledge to maintain voters’ privileges and help educate them in soccer leadership seemed to endorse the kind of patronage FIFA was criticized for during Sepp Blatter’s presidency.

“I can promise you that the numbers won’t change,” the Bahraini sheikh, who is the president of the Asian soccer confederation, told CONCACAF members.

Those same soccer leaders will take part in another vote Friday expected to pass FIFA reforms that include abolishing 17 of the current 26 standing committees.

“I am sure that we need most of you around,” the sheikh told the officials, who make up 35 of the 207 eligible voters. “It is an investment in the people we have in football.”

Minutes later, Infantino reminded the same group of delegates about his cash promises.

“Something is wrong if we cannot find 1 billion (dollars) out of 5 billion,” Infantino said, referring to the level of development funding pledges he has made from FIFA’s income at each World Cup. “And something is wrong because it has not been done.”

Infantino, the UEFA general secretary, and Sheikh Salman appear to be the candidates with the most support. Although Prince Ali of Jordan earned 73 votes in last year’s presidential vote against Blatter, he is considered to be an outsider this time.

“I’m a candidate that’s running for the presidency of FIFA to represent the world,” Prince Ali said. “I’m independent, beheld to no one.”

Two candidates are struggling to attract support: Former FIFA official Jerome Champagne and South African businessman Tokyo Sexwale, an anti-apartheid campaigner who was a political prisoner on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela.

“FIFA is a broken house … (and) needs to repair the damage that’s been done to the brand,” Sexwale said. “It’s severe and very, very painful. Some of the people are incarcerated, some are in jail, some are on the run, some are friends but if crime has been committed then justice must be seen to be done whilst you spare the innocent.”

Investigations into widespread wrongdoing in soccer led to FIFA vice presidents being indicted in the United States and to Blatter hastily deciding to quit in June shortly after being elected for a fifth term.

But Blatter was denied the opportunity to hand over power at Friday’s congress when he was banned in December over a 2011 financial transaction. That ban was reduced from eight to six years on Wednesday.

UEFA President Michel Platini is serving the same ban for his part in the deal with Blatter. The guilty verdict prevented him from fulfilling his dream of succeeding Blatter, with Infantino taking his place in the contest to run the sport.

UEFA vice president Angel Maria Villar opened the extraordinary congress of Europe’s governing body in Zurich by backing Platini, who is challenging his ban at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

“Michel Platini continues to work to defend himself to defend his innocence and honor,” Villar, the de facto acting UEFA president, said through a translator. “I firmly believe and hope Michel will be back with us soon.”