- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 14, 2017

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) - Issa Hayatou’s reign could end this week after nearly 30 years as the head of the African soccer confederation and a top FIFA executive.

Hayatou, FIFA’s most senior vice president due to his long service, faces what is predicted to be a tough election challenge - an unfamiliar situation for him - at the Confederation of African Football’s general assembly in Ethiopia on Thursday. His opponent, the head of the Madagascan association, could provide African soccer with a new leader and a new direction for the first time since the late 1980s.

Defeat for Hayatou in the vote of CAF’s 54 full member countries would not only remove him as president in Africa but also as a FIFA vice president and a member of its ruling council. Ahmad, the challenger from Madagascar, would replace Hayatou on the FIFA Council.

With a younger candidate calling for a more transparent CAF, and questioning the secrecy with which the organization has conducted financial deals, the 70-year-old Hayatou may be another veteran soccer leader pushed out by a desire for change emanating from the 2015 FIFA corruption scandal.

Ahmad, casting himself as the man to modernize CAF, is campaigning under the Twitter hashtag #TogetherForChange. Hayatou, the son of a sultan from northern Cameroon, doesn’t tweet and rarely gives interviews.

Hayatou, seeking an eighth term, enters the election weighed down by the threat of a criminal prosecution. The Egyptian Competition Authority has recommended that he and his secretary general be referred to court over a marketing and television rights deal worth a reported $1 billion.

CAF said allegations that it renewed its deal with French company Lagardere Sports without allowing competing bids from others were “unsubstantiated” and denies any wrongdoing. But the timing is terrible for Hayatou and he is vulnerable for the first time in a long time - although still defiant.

“If I believed that I will lose this election, I wouldn’t have entered the race in the first place,” Hayatou said on his arrival in Addis Ababa at the start of election week.

Hayatou’s confidence shouldn’t be ignored, with his longevity impressive: Sepp Blatter was still FIFA’s secretary general when Hayatou took charge of African soccer. Current FIFA President Gianni Infantino was a teenager.

Hayatou was re-elected unopposed as CAF president in 2013, but he was only unopposed after he pushed through rule changes that allowed only members of his executive committee to stand against him, preventing a challenge from former FIFA executive committee member Jacques Anouma. Age limits for candidates were also removed, allowing Hayatou to be eligible for re-election this year. There was little opposition to him.

A reprimand by the International Olympic Committee in 2011 over money he received from former marketing company ISL in the 1990s also had little effect on Hayatou’s control of CAF.

And although Ahmad’s campaign team has claimed support from 35 countries - 28 votes guarantee victory - the public announcements of support for the challenger haven’t matched that number.

“It is very difficult now to say how many countries are going to vote for me,” Ahmad told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “Nobody can know that at this moment. You campaign and if you believe in your work, only the vote will tell.”

Hayatou’s influence, built over three decades leading the most popular sport in Africa and for many years FIFA’s largest continental confederation, is still significant: Nigerian Football Federation president Amaju Pinnick has publicly supported Ahmad, but Nigerian media reports suggest the government has ordered him to vote for Hayatou. The reason? Nigeria’s political relationship with Cameroon.

Under the former track athlete, once a champion runner in Cameroon, African soccer has become more valuable, with the Lagardere deal a huge increase for CAF.

The question is, how many have benefited?

Ethiopia Football Federation president Junedin Basha said his country wants more representation at CAF and needs more investment.

“We have understood that protests (against Hayatou) have increased in recent days and months, saying African football should have developed more than its current status,” Junedin said. “Others say we should acknowledge what has been done so far. Anyway, we as a federation have decided who to vote for.”

Hayatou’s fate depends on how many old friends the longtime leader has kept.

After a meeting last month with South African President Jacob Zuma, CAF said Hayatou was “assured” of South Africa’s support in the election. South African sports minister Fikile Mbalula came out publicly to clarify that meeting a day later.

“President Jacob Zuma did not pledge his personal support or that of the South African government behind the name of Mr. Hayatou,” Mbalula said. “President Zuma wished him well as he would to other candidates.”


Imray reported from Somerset West, South Africa.

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