Kigali: Sheikh Salman’s bid to succeed Sepp Blatter got a major boost Friday when the African soccer confederation announced it was backing the Bahraini royal for Fifa president.

Following a meeting of African soccer leaders in Rwanda, the Caf executive committee said it would “fully support" the Asian soccer confederation president.

The decision improved Salman’s hopes of replacing Blatter as the head of the scandal-scarred soccer body. Salman and Uefa secretary general Gianni Infantino are seen as the strongest candidates to win the 26 February election.

The biggest continental grouping among the 209 voting members is Africa with 54.

Both Salman and Infantino are expected to get good support from their home continents, Asia and Europe, respectively. But Africa is seen as the bloc that could clinch the vote for one of them.

The announcement was made by Confederation of African Football vice presidents Suketu Patel and Almamy Kabele Camara at a news conference that lasted about a minute in a five-star hotel in Kigali, where the Caf executive committee had met earlier on Friday.

Patel and Camara then left without taking questions, while executive committee members Leo Tenga of Tanzania and Kalusha Bwalya of Zambia declined to comment to The Associated Press.

By backing Salman, Caf also turned its back on the only African candidate in the five-man field, South African businessman Tokyo Sexwale. Sexwale, a mining tycoon and former political prisoner during apartheid who was jailed alongside Nelson Mandela, had already been under pressure for a lackluster campaign. The clear snub from his home continent may force him to withdraw from the election.

Although Caf executives declared their support for Sheikh Salman, there is nothing compelling African countries to vote for him. However, many are expected to follow.

The other candidates in the Fifa election are Prince Ali of Jordan and former Fifa executive Jerome Champagne of France.

Salman, Infantino, Sexwale and Champagne were all in Rwanda to campaign. Prince Ali had decided against traveling, his campaign team said.

Interim Fifa President Issa Hayatou, who is also the president of Caf, attended the meeting in Rwanda but had previously delegated the region’s Fifa election responsibilities to the two African vice presidents.

However, Hayatou, the longtime head of African soccer, had hinted in an interview with French newspaper L’Equipe on Thursday that Caf would back Salman and ignore Sexwale.

“If we decide to support Salman, is it a crime? Who can prevent us from doing this?" Hayatou was quoted as saying.

Caf’s move was also bound to bring more scrutiny on a co-operation agreement signed last month between the AFC and Caf. The agreement was criticized by Prince Ali, who accused Salman of trying to engineer a bloc of African votes in his favour against election rules.

Prince Ali asked Fifa to investigate.

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