By Simon Evans
ZURICH (Reuters) - Soccer's world governing body FIFA took a first step toward overcoming years of corruption and scandal on Friday by overwhelmingly passing a set of reforms intended to make it more transparent, professional and accountable.
The package should help to guarantee that whoever is elected to succeed Sepp Blatter as FIFA president at the Congress being held in Zurich will face closer scrutiny and have less influence over the day-to-day management of the organization's business affairs.
The reforms include term limits for top officials and disclosure of their earnings, and a separation of powers between an elected FIFA Council responsible for broad strategy and a professional general secretariat, akin to a company's executive board, handling the business side.
FIFA's member associations voted by 179 to 22 to accept the reforms, which Francois Carrard, independent chairman of the Reform Committee, said were "necessary to bring a profound culture change to FIFA".
"This reform package will provide the foundation for the new president and the new leadership on which to build for the future," he said.
"It is not the end of the process, it is the beginning of one which will be developed over the years and is designed to restore the credibility and reputation that FIFA deserves."
That reputation is now so low that FIFA faces a $108 million deficit for 2015 "arising from a lack of credibility", an official said on Thursday. FIFA had already said it was proving difficult to renew sponsorship deals, and that no major contracts would be signed before a new president was in place.
ARRESTS AND BANS
Blatter and former European soccer chief Michel Platini have both been banned from the game for ethics violations, caught up in a storm that was unleashed when a clutch of delegates at a FIFA Congress last May were arrested at dawn at the behest of U.S. investigators.
Criminal investigations in the United States and Switzerland have resulted in the indictment of dozens of soccer officials and other entities for corruption, many of them serving or former presidents of national or continental associations.
In addition, FIFA has been forced to investigate controversies surrounding the awarding of its biggest showcase, the World Cup finals, especially the decision to grant the 2018 tournament to Russia and the 2022 finals to Qatar, a small, scorching desert state with little soccer tradition.
Swiss authorities are reviewing more than 150 reports of suspicious financial activity linked to the awarding of the 2018 and 2022 finals, and said on Thursday they had sent more documents including an internal FIFA report to U.S. investigators.
Whoever takes over from Blatter, who ran FIFA for 17 years like a globe-trotting head of state, will have to set about rebuilding the tarnished brand.
Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa is the bookmakers' favorite with Gianni Infantino, Swiss general secretary of the European soccer body UEFA a close second.
Jordanian Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein believes he is still firmly in the race, however, while Frenchman Jerome Champagne and South African Tokyo Sexwale will hope to make an impact.
"My first task will be to take responsible action to end the crisis," Ali said in his address to the forum, vowing "no acceptance of mismanagement, corruption, self interest, racism, sexism, discrimination of any kind or human rights violations."
"I'M ONE OF YOU"
Sheikh Salman told the gathering: "I'm not ready to mortgage the future of FIFA for election purposes ... I am one of you, elected in a national association for 15 years and elected in a confederation as a president for the last three years."
Champagne called for greater equality in the sport: "Do you want a football that will become like basketball, concentrated in a very limited number of countries or leagues? Or do you want football to continue in a universal way?"
Infantino told Reuters: "I am feeling good and very positive. The support I am receiving fills me with confidence."
Blatter's ban means he cannot attend the congress, but the 79-year-old said he had had contact with all the candidates except Prince Ali, and that many groups had sought his advice.
"I only answered: vote for who you want," Blatter told a Swiss newspaper, the Aargauer Zeitung.
The CONCACAF confederation for North and Central America and the Caribbean opted against endorsing a candidate and delegates suggested that support within the region was divided.
With no block vote from those 35 delegates, Africa's decision looked set to be the decisive factor.
African countries make up more than a quarter of the 207 soccer associations eligible to vote. On the final day of campaigning, there were sharply conflicting versions of how they would cast their ballots.
While the vice-president of their continental federation said virtually all would back Sheikh Salman, several delegates told Reuters the African vote would be split.
Infantino has said he is confident of winning more than half of the African votes, while Liberian soccer chief Musa Bility predicted that 27 of the region's votes would go to Jordan's Prince Ali.
(Additional reporting by Mike Collett, Brian Homewood and Joshua Franklin; Writing by Kevin Liffey; Editing by Hugh Lawson)