By GERALD IMRAY*
The men from Africa who say they want to be FIFA president may all be little-known and have only a remote chance of securing football’s most important job, but the continent will still play a big role in who succeeds Sepp Blatter.
Conceding his bid may be a long shot, former Nigeria player Segun Odegbami was the latest African to declare his intention to stand in next year’s FIFA presidential election.
“The choice of an African, specifically a Nigerian, may look far-fetched in this pursuit,” the 63-year-old Odegbami said in a statement published in the Nigerian media on Wednesday. “However, a closer scrutiny of the international football environment reveals the real possibility of such change.”
Odegbami was a forward for Nigeria in the late 1970s and early 1980s and is a soccer hero at home. He joined Liberia Football Association President Musa Bility and another Nigerian, former state governor Orji Uzor Kalu, as Africans saying they want to be on the FIFA presidential ballot on Feb. 26.
None of them appear to be serious challengers for the top job in the world’s biggest sport.
South African businessman Tokyo Sexwale, an apartheid-era political prisoner who is now a member of FIFA’s anti-discrimination task force, is considering whether to enter the race and may carry more weight at FIFA.
Prospective candidates must be nominated by at least five national football federations by Oct. 26 and pass integrity checks to get on the ballot.
Blatter is stepping down amid American and Swiss investigations into long-running corruption at the world body, which has seen top soccer officials arrested and facing extradition to the United States.
While UEFA President Michel Platini is the favorite to succeed his former mentor Blatter, the man considered Africa’s strongest candidate is unlikely to contest the election. African soccer head and senior FIFA Vice President Issa Hayatou of Cameroon has not announced any intention to run and appears unwilling to enter a presidential race again after losing heavily to Blatter in 2002.
Instead, the influence of the experienced, longtime Confederation of African Football president might be felt in who he and the 54 African countries under his control — the largest continental voting bloc in FIFA — ultimately support.
It may not even be an African and CAF might choose an Asian candidate to counter the European influence of Platini.
Liberia’s Bility, previously a critic of Hayatou, paid for that criticism when he failed last month to gain the support of his fellow Africans at CAF’s executive committee meeting in Cairo.
“To preserve the interests and unity of African football, it was agreed that Africa will give time to explore all options,” CAF said, announcing it had unanimously decided not to back Bility.
CAF also scheduled its next executive committee meeting for Oct. 27, the day after FIFA’s presidential nominations close, hinting that the African body might not come out publicly in support of anyone.
But behind the scenes, Hayatou will likely be at work looking for a winner to back.
Odegbami didn’t address whether he had the required support from five countries. Kalu, the former state governor, is chairman of a Nigerian consortium with interests in oil and gas, banking and media and publishing. He has said little about any plans for FIFA.
South Africa’s Sexwale could be the best candidate.
Currently on a mission of football diplomacy for Blatter in Israel and Palestine, Sexwale also has strong business and political credentials. He was imprisoned on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela during apartheid, is a former South African cabinet minister and owns a major mining and energy company.
Sexwale said last week he hadn’t yet decided if he would try to stand in the FIFA election, and may not make a decision until October.
“I am just applying my mind and I will make it up in due course,” he said.
He may be using the time to find out if he’ll receive the support of Hayatou and Africa’s 54 votes.