ZURICH – Crisis-hit world football governing body FIFA faces one of the most important days in its 112-year history when it elects a new leader on Friday, hoping to usher in a fresh era after decades of corruption.
Delegates from more than 200 countries will vote for a new president to succeed Sepp Blatter, two days after the disgraced Swiss, and European soccer chief Michel Platini, lost their appeals against bans for ethics violations.
A wide-ranging set of reforms, which are designed to prevent corruption, will be voted on before the presidential election and are expected to be passed. They include term limits for top officials and disclosure of their earnings.
Whoever takes over from Blatter, who ran FIFA for 17 years like a globe-trotting head of state, will inherit a very different job, with the focus on crisis management, after dozens of international soccer officials were indicted in the United States last year for racketeering, money-laundering and bribery.
Confederation (AFC) president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa is the bookmakers' favourite with UEFA's Swiss general secretary Gianni Infantino a close second.
Jordanian Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein believes he is still firmly in the race however, while Frenchman Jerome Champagne and South African Tokyo Sexwale will hope to make an impact.
Blatter's six-year ban from football means he cannot attend the congress, but many groups and associations have sought his advice ahead of Friday's vote, according to the 79-year-old.
"I only answered: vote for who you want," Blatter was quoted as saying in Friday's edition of Swiss newspaper Aargauer Zeitung. Blatter, who denies wrongdoing, said he had had contact with all of the candidates except Prince Ali.
Supporters of Sheikh Salman lined the road outside the Hallenstadion early on Friday as delegates began to arrive.
Around 50 held banners proclaiming "FIFA Will Be Safe With Salman" and "Support The Clean Man", and there was little indication on Friday morning that the vote would be anything other than a two-horse race between him and Infantino.
"I am feeling good and very positive. The support I am receiving fills me with confidence," Infantino told Reuters.
A spokesman for his Bahraini rival said: "Sheikh Salman is very confident about (the) vote."
The CONCACAF confederation for North and Central America and the Caribbean opted against endorsing a candidate and delegates suggested that support within the region was divided.
With no block vote from those 35 delegates, Africa's decision now looks set to be the decisive factor.
African countries make up more than a quarter of the 207 football associations eligible to vote. On the final day of campaigning, there were sharply conflicting versions of how they would cast their ballots.
While the vice-president of their continental federation said virtually all would back Sheikh Salman, several delegates told Reuters the African vote would be split.
Infantino has said he was confident of winning more than half of the African votes, while Liberian soccer chief Musa Bility predicted the possibly unlikely scenario of 27 of the region's votes going to Jordan's Prince Ali.
"The world is waiting and watching -- this is the biggest milestone in the history of FIFA. It will decide if FIFA goes ahead as we want or if it spirals down," Prince Ali told delegates.
FIFA was plunged into turmoil by the corruption scandal that broke last year, beginning with a dawn raid to arrest delegates at a Swiss luxury hotel.
Criminal investigations led by the United States and Switzerland have spanned dozens of countries, focusing largely on the awarding of lucrative broadcast and marketing rights to the world's most popular sport.
They are also examining the process by which FIFA awarded the next two World Cups toRussia
Acting FIFA president Issa Hayatou has appealed to FIFA members to back the package of reforms on governance. "I urge each of you to support the reforms in full here this week, and then to implement them to their entirety at home," Hayatou said in an address aimed at the six confederations that run soccer around the world. –Reuters