Few surprises on last day for FIFA contenders

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Few surprises on last day for FIFA contenders

GENEVA - Deadline day in the FIFA presidential election race saw last-minute surprise entries and a potential eight-man lineup.

Among late tactical changes on Monday, two unexpected additions were Gianni Infantino - the right-hand man of suspended UEFA President Michel Platini, whose own entry will likely be barred - and Liberian soccer leader Musa Bility, whose campaign seemed hopelessly stalled in August.

The list of contenders to succeed Sepp Blatter to lead the corruption-hit world soccer governing body grew longer than expected and will surely be cut before the Feb. 26 ballot.

A further twist stopped the race reaching nine as former FIFA secretary general, Michel Zen-Ruffinen, told The Associated Press he decided not to run despite getting the required nominations from five of the 209 member federations. Just over one month ago, Platini was a strong front-runner in a small field with key backers in Asia and the Americas.

That changed on Sept. 25 when the former France great was implicated in a Swiss criminal investigation. Platini got a suspected ``disloyal payment” of $2 million in backdated salary from FIFA funds in 2011 with Blatter’s approval. Both are serving 90-day bans imposed by FIFA’s ethics committee pending a full investigation.

Platini’s bloc of support seemed sure to transfer to Asia’s soccer confederation president, Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa.

The Bahraini royal family member filed his nomination papers Monday and is likely the current favorite, yet his bid has exposed himself and his home country to exposure for their human rights record.

Sheikh Salman’s entry has been criticized by rights groups who urged FIFA’s election committee to reject him as a candidate when it oversees integrity checks in the next two weeks.

Questions have been raised over whether Sheikh Salman, as the Bahrain Football Association president in 2011, adequately protected national team players after some took part in pro-democracy protests. Some players say they were tortured while detained by government forces.

“Sheikh Salman played a key role in Bahrain’s retaliation against athlete-protesters,” the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy and the Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain said in a joint statement. ?Sheikh Salman did not make a statement Monday. He previously challenged critics to present proof of wrongdoing, which he denies, and suggested such questions have to do with politics and not soccer.

Still, Infantino’s late entry offers the Europe-Asia alliance an extra option if both Platini and Sheikh Salman are ruled ineligible as candidates.?

Africa got a second contender after Bility re-emerged, two months since his campaign seemed over when African soccer leaders refused to support him.

“I don’t want to go into any race that I cannot win,” Bility said, saying more than 25 of the 54 African voting federations offered to nominate him.?

Other probable candidates vying for the FIFA job include Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan, South African tycoon Tokyo Sexwale, former FIFA official Jerome Champagne and David Nakhid, a former player from Trinidad and Tobago. AP

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