Bahrain's Prince Salman was tipped to win until the last moment, despite allegations that he had overseen the torture of Bahraini athletes
ZURICH, Switzerland - Football’s world governing body FIFA has elected Gianni Infantino as its new president, in the process rejecting two Middle East candidates – Prince Ali Bin Hussein of Jordan and Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa of Bahrain. Yet in a six-month campaign of plotting and intrigue it was ultimately Prince Ali who emerged as the kingmaker, switching his support in the second round of voting to help Infantino gain the overall majority of FIFA’s 207 federations.
"It was a sporting competition and a great sign of democracy," said Infantino, a 45-year-old lawyer. "The time has come to return to football. FIFA has been through crisis but these times are over."
Infantino defeated Jordan’s Prince Ali Bin Hussein, Frenchman Jerome Champagne and Bahrain’s Sheikh Salman after two rounds of voting. A fifth candidate, South Africa’s Tokyo Sexwale, withdrew his name from the ballot before the election took place.
The decisive moment came after the first round of voting in which Infantino went into a surprise lead of 88 votes. Needing just 16 more to win, Ali – a distant third place at that stage and unlikely to win – flipped most of his support to Infantino, who ultimately defeated Salman by 115 to 88. Until the last moment Salman was slated to win.
As FIFA claims to enter a new era of openness and transparency by passing wide-ranging governance reforms at its congress met in Zurich, in rejecting the favourite, Sheikh Salman, it avoided further controversy.
Salman is implicated in human rights violations in his native Bahrain and during the election race was tainted by further allegations of improprieties relating to previous football elections. The Bahraini forcefully denies all such accusations, denouncing them as "nasty lies". Victory by him threatened FIFA with another PR disaster, but they appear to have dodged that bullet.
Outside the congress venue a small demonstration of pro-democracy supporters had gathered chanting anti-Salman slogans. Their arrival was preceded by an early morning gathering of pro-Salman supporters from Bahrain, Pakistan and Senegal, who were swiftly moved on by their organiser after journalists began asking them questions.
"While I and Bahrain’s victims of rights violations are glad that Sheikh Salman lost the vote, we continue to press for an investigation into these abuses," said Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, Director of Advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD).
"He is still the president of Asian football, and until he is held to account and questioned, he will continue to decay human rights and transparency in FIFA and in Bahrain. If he has the courage, let him call for the release of athletes who are still prisoners of conscience in Bahrain today."
Earlier in the day, wide-ranging governance reforms were passed by Congress, which FIFA believe will rescue it from dissolution by the Swiss authorities that are currently running a joint investigation into the body's affairs with Washington.
FIFA is currently afforded "victim status" under Swiss law and is considered to have been overtaken by criminals and pillaged by decades of bribery and kickback schemes. But had it shown itself incapable of reform this status risked being changed to "criminal conspirator" status, which would have left the organisation facing the abyss.
The body found itself marred in controversy last year over multiple corruption allegations.
FIFA's former president Sepp Blatter was in power for 17 years before wrongdoing was revealed.
Infantino is considered a safe pair of hands, but will have his work cut out from the outset. It is likely that the joint US-Swiss investigation will get worse before it gets better. He will also need to oversee controversial World Cups in Russia in 2018 and Qatar four years later. Neither, however, are likely to come under threat from Infantino’s presidency.
Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko was among the first to congratulate him, telling AP: "I'm satisfied. We supported him from the start. I hope that everything that has been planned is put into practice."