DUBAI: Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa is a blue-blooded contender in the FIFA leadership race who emerged from nowhere to become a frontrunner to lead world football.
The 50-year-old senior member of the Bahrain royal family, whose sister is the wife of the Gulf state’s king, has built up heavyweight support despite human rights questions shadowing his campaign.
Sheikh Salman has vowed to make FIFA rise like a “phoenix” if successful in Friday’s vote, when he takes on UEFA’s Gianni Infantino and three other candidates.
Born in London and a Manchester United fan, the sheikh, with his steely grey hair, has been a discrete but determined football politician as head of the Asian Football Confederation since 2013.
He had publicly backed UEFA leader Michel Platini to take over FIFA. The sheikh entered the contest after Platini was suspended over a suspect payment from FIFA and only registered on the final day for candidates.
Sheikh Salman told AFP in a recent interview he “had never thought before of running for the post of FIFA president”.
The Bahraini royal did not seem destined for a career in football, though he played to youth team level with top Bahraini club Riffa.
Sheikh Salman lived and studied accountancy in London until the mid-1980s.
In 1992, he obtained an English literature and history degree from the University of Bahrain and then moved into the family construction, real estate and import-export business.
The sheikh is wealthy enough that he said he will not take a salary if he becomes FIFA’s president.
In 1998 he became the Bahrain Football Association vice president and then president in 2002.
He made a first unsuccessful bid for a place on the FIFA executive committee in 2009, losing out to Qatar’s Mohammed bin Hammam, who was later banned for life from FIFA.
The sheikh has said he would separate FIFA’s football and business activities and bring in outside experts and act as a non-executive president as world football fights to improve its sullied name.
“Nothing short of a complete organisational overhaul and the introduction of stringent control mechanisms will allow us to re-launch FIFA in its entirety,” he said in his manifesto.
The sheikh has the public support of the Asian and African confederations which could between them provide 100 of FIFA’s 209 votes.
His team believe he will also get votes from the Caribbean and South America. Sheikh Salman is also close to Kuwaiti powerbroker Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah, a member of the International Olympic Committee and the FIFA executive.
But his campaign has come under fire from human rights groups, which accused him of involvement in the arrest and torture of footballers when he was head of the Bahrain association during 2011 civil protests.
Rights groups say he helped identify players involved in the protests and did nothing to protect them.
“These are false, nasty lies that have been repeated again and again,” Sheikh Salman told the BBC. This month he signed a pledge to end rights abuses and corruption in sport.