GENEVA (AP) — Deadline day to enter the FIFA presidential election saw surprise entries and a potential eight-man lineup on Monday.
Among late tactical changes, two unexpected additions were Gianni Infantino — the right-hand man of suspended UEFA President Michel Platini, whose own entry will likely be barred — and Liberian soccer leader Musa Bility, whose campaign seemed hopelessly stalled in August.
The list of contenders to succeed Sepp Blatter leading the corruption-hit world soccer governing body grew longer than expected and will surely be cut before the Feb. 26 ballot.
A further twist stopped the race reaching nine as a former FIFA secretary general, Michel Zen-Ruffinen, told The Associated Press he decided not to run despite getting the required nominations from five of the 209 member federations.
Just over one month ago, Platini was a strong front-runner in a small field with key backers in Asia and the Americas.
That changed Sept. 25 when the former France great was implicated in a Swiss criminal investigation. Platini got a suspected "disloyal payment" of $2 million in backdated salary from FIFA funds got in 2011 with Blatter's approval. Both are serving 90-day bans imposed by FIFA's ethics committee pending a full investigation.
Platini's bloc of support seemed sure to transfer to Asia's soccer confederation president, Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa.
The Bahraini royal family member duly filed his nomination papers Monday and is likely the current favorite, yet his bid has exposed himself and his home country to exposure for their human rights record.
Sheikh Salman's entry has already been criticized by rights groups who urged FIFA's election committee to reject him as a candidate when it oversees integrity checks in the next two weeks.
Questions have been raised over whether Sheikh Salman, as the Bahrain Football Association president in 2011, adequately protected national team players after some took part in pro-democracy protests. Some players say they were tortured while detained by government forces.
"Sheikh Salman played a key role in Bahrain's retaliation against athlete-protesters," the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy and the Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain said in a joint statement. "Throughout the government crackdown, he allegedly examined photographs of the protesters, identifying Bahraini athletes for the security forces."
Sheikh Salman did not make a statement Monday. He previously challenged critics to present proof of wrongdoing, which he denies, and suggested that such questions have to do with politics and not soccer.
Still, Infantino's late entry offers the Europe-Asia alliance an extra option if both Platini and Sheikh Salman are ruled ineligible as candidates.
UEFA agreed to its new strategy after an emergency executive committee meeting held via video conference.
"I am very proud of what we have achieved at UEFA and the way in which we conduct ourselves as an organization," said Infantino, a Swiss lawyer who has been Platini's top administrator for six years. He was already viewed as a potential FIFA secretary general or UEFA presidential candidate.
Africa got a second contender when after Bility re-emerged two months since his campaign seemed over when African soccer leaders refused to support him.
"I don't want to go into any race that I cannot win," Bility told the AP, saying more than 25 of the 54 African voting federations offered to nominate him.
Bility joined the race one day after longtime African confederation president Issa Hayatou — the interim FIFA president, who has declined to publicly support Sexwale — met with Sheikh Salman in Cairo.
Other probable candidates vying for the FIFA job include Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan, South African tycoon Tokyo Sexwale, former FIFA official Jerome Champagne and David Nakhid, a former player from Trinidad and Tobago.
Prince Ali, a former FIFA vice president, cut ties with Platini after losing to Blatter in the election in May. That was held amid a crisis provoked by American and Swiss federal investigations of corruption which have forced Blatter to leave office early.
Sexwale, an Apartheid-era political prisoner, was appointed by Blatter to improve relations between the Israeli and Palestinian soccer bodies; Champagne, a former diplomat from France, was a senior FIFA official for 11 years under Blatter; Nakhid has career links to a Blatter aide.
They were not joined by Zen-Ruffinen, who said he gained five nominations but lacked significant backing within a crowded field.
"Some of the candidates are very strong and it doesn't make a lot of sense to go," Zen-Ruffinen said Monday. "I have hesitated until very late tonight."
Later Monday, Champagne and Nakhid shared a platform at a sports conference dedicated to good governance, the two-yearly Play The Game event in Denmark.
"I am sure there will be a lot of sleaze," Champagne predicted at a session examining the FIFA race. "It has started, believe me."
AP Sports Writer Rob Harris in Manchester, England, contributed to this report.