- Associated Press - Monday, April 6, 2015

The three men challenging Sepp Blatter for the most powerful job in world soccer can see for themselves this week just how difficult it will be to remove the Swiss as FIFA president.

The Confederation of African Football holds its main meeting in Cairo on Tuesday, when Blatter will likely be acclaimed by his long-time backers on the continent as their choice in next month’s presidential election for soccer’s governing body.

Meanwhile, his challengers won’t even get to address African football leaders at their congress at a hotel in the Egyptian capital.

Unlike Europe’s UEFA congress, where Blatter had to listen to stinging criticism of his leadership by his election opponents and European officials, the president will be back among his friends in Africa.

The continent has long been a strong support base for Blatter and is expected to show that, although the desire for change at the top of the game is great in Europe, it isn’t everywhere else in the football world.

Blatter will be given the floor to make his speech as FIFA president, an opportunity also to rouse his supporters. Presidential candidates Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan, Dutch FA head Michael van Praag and former Portugal international Luis Figo will attend the meet only as “observers,” the African soccer body said.

Blatter has already warmed up his audience as the campaign trail moves to Africa, the biggest of FIFA’s six continental confederations with 54 of the 209 member countries that will vote in the presidential election on May 29.

“When we travel to Cairo for the CAF Congress … we must show African football all the great appreciation and respect it deserves,” Blatter wrote in his latest column in FIFA’s weekly magazine.

Blatter noted that, for the first time, two African teams made the second round of last year’s World Cup. He praised CAF President Issa Hayatou’s “strategic wisdom” for uniting African football and creating what he said was an environment for success.

What Blatter didn’t mention was that three of Africa’s five teams at the World Cup saw player revolts over payments. Also, in the last two months, two of CAF’s member countries have taken it to sport’s highest court to appeal what they called unjust punishments. And southern African nation Zimbabwe was thrown out of 2018 World Cup qualifiers by FIFA after crippling debts prevented it from settling unpaid wages owed to a coach seven years ago.

Blatter and FIFA vice president Hayatou - now allies after Blatter easily beat Hayatou to be re-elected in 2002 - remain all-powerful in Africa.

In Egypt, Blatter will seek and likely get overwhelming African support for a fifth term, and Cameroon’s Hayatou is expected to secure rule changes that will enable him to extend his own presidency at CAF beyond 30 years.

Following the lead of FIFA and the 79-year-old Blatter, CAF and the 68-year-old Hayatou want to scrap age limits for officials, allowing Hayatou to stand again in 2017. Hayatou’s proposal to allow officials, including himself, to run for office when 70 or older is expected to be easily passed.

In other business, CAF will hold elections for two African places on FIFA’s executive committee and choose the host of the 2017 African Cup of Nations to replace war-torn Libya. Algeria, Gabon and Ghana are the candidates.

Also, six seats on CAF’s executive committee are up for election, but in a further display of the lack of appetite for change, five of them have the incumbents standing for re-election unopposed.

Blatter and Hayatou share similarities, building long reigns and surviving corruption allegations against their organizations to emerge seemingly as strong as ever. Also like Blatter, Hayatou said the current term would be his last but appears ready to go back on that promise.

“There’s no need to fear change because change will be for the better of African and world football,” FIFA challenger Figo said in a plea to Africa. Prince Ali visited Zimbabwe’s troubled football federation last month.

But the three candidates need to win over a large swathe of African voters to have a chance of toppling Blatter, and don’t appear to be in a position to do so.

Soccer analysts in Africa say there’s a simple and effective trade-off: Blatter supports Hayatou as long as Hayatou’s Africa continues to back Blatter.

Looking forward to the CAF meeting, Blatter quoted an African proverb to end his column.

“If you are in one boat, you have to row together,” he wrote.

___

Gerald Imray is on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GeraldImrayAP

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