By Simon Evans
GENEVA (Reuters) - Two Arab royals are set to face off for control of FIFA with the main battleground likely to be Europe, the home of world soccer’s scandal-hit governing body.
The election to replace Sepp Blatter at the helm of FIFA took a fresh twist on Friday as the president of Asian soccer Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa of Bahrain entered the contest.
"Sheikh Salman is intending to run," a Middle Eastern soccer source told Reuters on Friday, while British bookmakers William Hill instantly made Salman a 5-2 second favorite behind Jordanian Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein in the race for one of the most powerful job in world sport.
The move came after a UEFA meeting in Nyon on Thursday which, barring another twist in the tale, appears to have marked the end of Frenchman Michel Platini’s presidential campaign.
Sheikh Salman had initially backed Platini, the UEFA president. But the Frenchman's troubles, which originated with a 2011 payment of two million Swiss francs from Blatter's FIFA for work done nine years earlier, have dramatically changed the electoral landscape.
Last week, Platini was handed a 90-day provisional ban from football by FIFA’s Ethics Committee – a decision which has quickly led to his support dissipating.
All FIFA’s previous elected leaders have come from Europe and South America. With the 2022 World Cup set to take place in Qatar, the power in the world’s most popular sport could shift to the oil-rich Gulf region.
Sheikh Salman is closely allied with Kuwaiti Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, one of the most powerful men in international sports politics and a key figure in the Olympic movement. Ahmad's backing will be valuable for the Feb. 26 vote, but Salman faces a fight, even within his own region.
A source close to Prince Ali's camp said he has spent the past few weeks quietly building up support.
Ali has been given indications of backing from some of the smaller federations within UEFA, the source said, and found some support within Africa and inside CONMEBOL, the South American confederation, which had backed Platini. Each of FIFA's 209 national associations has one vote in the election.
Prince Ali is traveling to Chile for the opening game of the FIFA Under-17 World Cup on Saturday, where he will hold several meetings with federations before heading north to meet Mexican officials.
Ali lost to Blatter in May’s election but was backed by the United States and a number of European federations, picking up 73 votes. Blatter announced four days after his win that he was going to leave in February.
Malaysian Peter Velappan, a former AFC general secretary, has backed Prince Ali and told Reuters that the AFC now needed to have a meeting of its members before the vote.
"Of course (Sheikh) Salman does not get on with Prince Ali, so he won't accept him but then it is for all the national associations to have a meeting and discuss it," he said.
A month ago, Europe was united behind Platini, but now the region's 53 votes are up for grabs with both Arab candidates chasing support. And it is still possible a candidate will emerge from within UEFA.
"We will decide next week on whether to back a European candidate in the election," a source from a UEFA national association told Reuters after Thursday's meeting. There were several options, he said.
For Platini to have even a chance of being one of those options he would need a swift victory against his ban at FIFA’s Appeals Committee.
The case revolves around a payment of two million Swiss francs from Blatter to Platini in 2011, nine years after he finished working as an advisor to Blatter.
That payment is part of a criminal investigation by Swiss authorities into Blatter. Both men have denied any wrongdoing and appealed their suspension.
Other candidates may yet emerge as the struggle gets under way for control of an organization that was rocked by the U.S Department of Justice's indicting 14 soccer officials and sports marketing executives on May 27. Swiss authorities are also investigating FIFA.
(Reporting By Simon Evans, editing by Larry King)