A two-horse contest

A two-horse contest

A two-horse contest

The election to select the next president of FIFA, world football’s governing body, is less than a month away. On February 26, a special — the official word is extraordinary — congress of FIFA’s 209 member associations will be held in Zurich, and the successor to the now-suspended Sepp Blatter will be chosen. While some of the five official candidates have trumpeted commitments recently, plenty of speculation remains about voting support, back-room deals and campaigning tactics. Through interviews with federation officials and people connected to the candidates, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, here is a look at the state of the race with a month to go:

It isn’t really a five-man contest

Yes, technically, there are five candidates: Gianni Infantino of Switzerland; Tokyo Sexwale of South Africa; Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa of Bahrain; Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan; and Jérôme Champagne of France. But the reality is that the scale of the candidates’ campaigns and the breakdown of the voting countries, who are grouped in largely continental geographic confederations, point toward either Infantino or Salman winning.

To win on the first ballot, a candidate needs two-thirds of the votes, or 139. On subsequent ballots, a candidate needs only a simple majority. Several officials who are closely following the campaigns, when asked to appraise the potential support each candidate would have if the election were held today, gave this rough approximation: Salman has about 80 to 90 votes, Infantino has 70 to 80 votes, Ali has around 30 votes, and the other two candidates have around five votes each.

The voting will be less predictable
Previously, bloc voting among the confederations was common. This time, however, support within each confederation is more scattered. Salman has the endorsement of the Asian confederation’s executive committee, for example, but that does not mean he will get all 46 of Asia’s votes. Ali has support there (Jordan is part of the Asian confederation, and Iraq also had pledged to support him), and Champagne has worked closely with the Palestinian federation.

In Africa, which with 54 votes is the largest bloc, the lone African candidate, Sexwale, is believed to have limited support. The African confederation supported Blatter, who beat Ali in last year’s election, in the past but has not yet endorsed a candidate in the special election.

Even in Europe, where Infantino has broad support, there are cracks: much of Europe backed Ali in the last election, and Malta, for example, has said it will do the same this time.

CONCACAF, which governs soccer in North and Central America and the Caribbean, is seen by many as a wild card and the location of possible swing votes. Because so many of the 35 CONCACAF member federations are reeling after seeing their leaders indicted in the corruption case brought by the US Justice Department, there will be no bloc vote among the federations’ temporary leaders. The United States publicly supported Ali in the last election, although that was also as much a statement against Blatter. This time, it is less likely the United States will publicly support a candidate before the vote.

Ali could be a kingmaker
If Ali finishes in third place after the first ballot, it is possible that he could endorse one of the other candidates and ask his segment of voters to switch their support. Not surprisingly, Ali has said he has no intention of backing out of the race — and he was loath to even concede victory after trailing by 60 votes to Blatter on the first ballot last May — but Infantino and Salman are surely aware that the support of Ali on a later ballot could hold the key to victory.

While there have been no formal discussions about an endorsement, it is worthwhile to note that Ali publicly criticized Salman and questioned his ethics after Salman, in his role as president of the Asian confederation, signed a cooperative agreement with the African confederation earlier this month. Ali charged that the agreement “looks like a blatant attempt to engineer a bloc vote” — a charge that Salman denied — and asked FIFA to investigate.

A deal is possible
From the very beginning, there has been speculation that Infantino and Salman would campaign hard and then, shortly before the election, agree on a deal in which the one with more obvious support would remain on the ballot and the one trailing would step aside, perhaps to fill the vacant No 2 role of FIFA general secretary.

This now seems less likely, if only because those close to Infantino believe he is capable of beating Salman outright. Salman, too, was never particularly likely to be interested in the less prestigious post of general secretary (a post Infantino currently holds for European soccer’s governing body).

For the moment, both men are continuing to lobby voters individually. Salman said in an interview with England’s Sky Sports that he could envision a high-ranking role in his administration for Richard Scudamore, the head of the Premier League. Infantino has unveiled a proposal that would increase the size of the World Cup to 40 teams as well as potentially allow regions, as opposed to single countries, to bid for hosting rights.

Nothing new on Qatar
Since every twist and turn in the FIFA world these days seems to inspire another round of questions regarding Qatar’s hosting the 2022 World Cup, it always seems prudent to point out that construction in Qatar is continuing and, to this point, there is no indication the 2022 World Cup will be held anywhere else. Neither of the leading candidates has focused on re-evaluating the Qatari hosting contract, which was won in an election that has been riddled by controversy. And with more than 50 votes available from Asia, there is little incentive for them to even suggest stripping the region of the tournament.
However, on Tuesday, Champagne told a French radio station that the United States, which finished second in the voting, should host the Cup if Qatar loses the right to. Russia’s 2018 bid, which was selected in the same tainted vote in 2010, also seems locked in, particularly since the qualifying draw for the tournament has already taken place.