Sheikh Ahmad singles out 2 top contenders for FIFA president

WASHINGTON (AP) The Kuwaiti powerbroker playing a key role in FIFA’s presidential race singled out two men as the leading candidates to take over soccer’s scandal-scarred governing body.

In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah said Asian soccer confederation president Sheikh Salman bin Ibraham Al Khalifa and UEFA general secretary Giannni Infantino are the top choices among the eight contenders.

”I believe they are the two who will have a better chance than the others at the end of this race,” he said shortly after arriving in Washington, where he is chairing the annual assembly of the Association of National Olympic Committees this week.

Sheikh Ahmad, an influential IOC member, was elected earlier this year to the FIFA executive committee and has been active behind the scenes – particularly with UEFA leaders – in securing backing for candidates to succeed Sepp Blatter.

Eight candidates were put forward by Monday’s deadline.

One of the late unexpected entrants was Infantino, the right-hand man of UEFA President Michel Platini, who is currently suspended and looks unlikely to make it onto the ballot for the Feb. 26 vote.

”Gianni is secretary general of UEFA, which is one of the biggest football organizations,” Sheikh Ahmad said. ”He’s done his job very well. UEFA has been having lots of success lately and this gives him a good advantage for the race.”

”Sheikh Salman also has been elected again by the Asian Football Confederation, and he has the whole of Asia behind him, almost,” he added. ”Both of those gentlemen have done a lot of jobs lately related to the reforms that FIFA needs.”

Others vying for the FIFA presidency include Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan, South African tycoon Tokyo Sexwale, former FIFA official Jerome Champagne, former Trinidad and Tobago player David Nakhid, and Liberian soccer association president Musa Bility.

Platini was once the strong front-runner, but has been suspended by the FIFA ethics committee over a suspected ”disloyal payment” of $2 million in backdated salary he received from FIFA in 2011.

Sheikh Ahmad took a central role in FIFA election talks with Platini even before he formally joined the executive committee on May 29. Two days earlier, FIFA headquarters and a Zurich hotel were raided to seize evidence and make arrests for Swiss and American federal investigations into corruption.

At the Baur au Lac hotel in Zurich last week, UEFA officials – including Infantino – consulted regularly with Sheikh Ahmad, while Sheikh Salman stayed at a different hotel.

In the AP interview, Sheikh Ahmad dismissed talk of being a kingmaker.

”I believe the king, he makes himself,” he said. ”I don’t believe there is a kingmaker.”

The sheikh himself had been mentioned as a potential FIFA presidential candidate, but decided not to enter the race.

”I have been requested by a lot of colleagues, sports leaders to run, but, to be honest, I prefer to be in my own environment,” he said. ”I am ANOC president. I am IOC. I am FIFA. I don’t have the time now to spend in Zurich as a FIFA president.”

”I think the next FIFA president will have to spend a lot of time with legal issues, and maybe lose a lot of his time because of these legal issues and will miss the sport,” he added. ”I would prefer to stay in the sport.”

Sheikh Ahmad said it was ”destiny” that brought him into FIFA, and stressed that reforming the organization and restoring its image was the most urgent need.

”I think now we have to work double on the reform side,” he said. ”I think the leadership is our second priority.”

AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar in Geneva contributed to this report.