- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 28, 2017

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) - The man driving the campaign to unseat longtime African soccer boss Issa Hayatou is a multi-millionaire Zimbabwean property tycoon who dabbles in politics and was once accused of being a spy. He has a love of brightly colored designer suits - pink is his latest - and for posting cellphone videos showing off his flamboyant lifestyle.

Zimbabwe Football Association president Phillip Chiyangwa was a nobody in soccer, even in his home country, just over a year ago.

Now he gets FIFA president Gianni Infantino to come to his birthday party and dance with him.

He also has the attention of Hayatou, the Confederation of African Football president and FIFA senior vice president often thought to be immoveable in his rule of African soccer for 29 years.

Chiyangwa is not standing against the 70-year-old Hayatou on March 16 in the CAF presidential election in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Rules Hayatou ushered through mean only members of his own executive committee can challenge him. Madagascar football head Ahmad is the candidate, but Chiyangwa is Ahmad’s campaign manager and pivotal in maybe the biggest threat yet to the long reign of Hayatou, who was first elected in 1988.

Chiyangwa claims to have won over 35 of Africa’s 54 federations to Ahmad’s cause. If true, that’s enough to remove Hayatou and cause a seismic shift in African soccer.

Few federations have come out publicly in support of Ahmad to verify Chiyangwa’s claims, although Nigeria is one, but Chiyangwa’s influence has still reached a long way in a short time. All the way to the top.

At his 58th birthday party in Harare on Friday, Chiyangwa, in his pink suit, recorded one of his selfie videos with world soccer head Infantino. They’re both smiling and laughing.

“You guys, guess who I’m standing with?” Chiyangwa asks.

The FIFA president, in a more measured dark suit, points to Chiyangwa and says “He’s the man!”

Chiyangwa and Infantino also hit the dance floor together.

Lighthearted fun, but Infantino’s decision to party with his senior vice president’s enemies just before African soccer’s big election gave serious credence to the theory that Chiyangwa is turning the tide against Hayatou. Ahmad was also at Chiyangwa’s lavish celebration, where bottles of expensive whiskey were delivered to guests at their tables. A number of other African federation heads attended.

Hayatou tried to stop them going, saying Chiyangwa didn’t have the authority to organize a meeting. Chiyangwa said it was a party, not official soccer business, but still seized on the opportunity to campaign.

“We met in Nigeria and realized we had so many things to achieve in order for us to revolutionize our football and we needed to come together,” Chiyangwa said, referring to the countries he claims support Ahmad. “We were 17 at that time but we are probably now about 35. Thirty-five is a dangerous number. Dangerous as in it does things in Africa.”

Ahmad has focused his campaign on financial transparency, on making African soccer’s big-money deals open to scrutiny. He also proposed a new compliance department for CAF and extending ethics checks.

While Ahmad deals with the minutiae of his manifesto, he has let Chiyangwa provide the razzmatazz.

Chiyangwa told the AP that his vision for Africa was “to make football so attractive” that his grandchildren will want to be involved in it “from infancy.”

Chiyangwa was once a boxing promoter and brought Michael Jackson to Zimbabwe. He is close to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe and a member of the ruling party’s central committee, although politics has been tricky for him. He was jailed for eight months on espionage charges in 2004. The charges were ultimately dropped.

His wealth is primarily in property, and glimpses of his lifestyle are on offer in the videos posted on the internet.

Some of the most eye-catching feature his fleet of luxury cars, including an $800,000 Hummer limousine he named “The Transformer” and which resembles a nightclub inside, all flashing neon lights. He calls his mansion, with its 33 bedrooms and 25 lounges, the White House.

“I’m trying to have fun,” Chiyangwa says in another video as he pans the camera from a view of himself to his huge home, and then to a cherry-red Mercedes sports car parked among a collection of luxury SUVs in the driveway.

His first step in soccer came only in December 2015 when he became president of ZIFA. His second move was to rise to the head of the southern African union.

Now, he’s openly goading Hayatou, one of international soccer’s veteran leaders, the longest-serving executive on FIFA’s ruling council, and previously the acting FIFA president, doing it with a swaggering style that contrasts the aging Hayatou’s gruff, almost dour, way.

In Chiyangwa’s latest video on Twitter, he sits in the back seat of a car wearing sunglasses and singing along to a Zimbabwean pop tune. He occasionally raises two fingers in a kind of salute to the music, and deftly changes the song’s lyrics at the end: “Oh, Lord, please carry me. Carry me, please. That’s the same route … to remove Hayatou.”

___

Imray reported from Somerset West, South Africa.

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