Bahrain's Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa is FIFA frontrunner
Five candidates will stand for presidential election Friday
Salman is the former head of Bahrain's FA
He is head of Asian Football Confederation
“I’ve been used as a political tool,” Salman told CNN’s Amanda Davies in Zurich ahead of Friday’s crucial elections, where Sepp Blatter’s successor will finally be announced.
He says he has all but sewn up support from the African and Asian football confederations (he’s head of the latter), but Salman’s bid has been dogged by human rights allegations.
Accusations from opposition-led human rights groups, like the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), stem from Salman’s previous role as the head of the Gulf kingdom’s football association.
They range from turning a blind eye to physical abuse levied on footballers who took part in anti-government demonstrations during the Arab Spring, to penalizing six clubs who sympathized with the demonstrators.
Last month BIRD sent a letter to FIFA’s top sponsors – which include Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Adidas – in an effort to discredit Salman’s bid.
However, Salman said he has been “absolutely” unfairly portrayed, and characterized the accusations as part of a “political dispute between some opposition and some government.”
“I’ve got nothing to hide,” he declared. “Everything has to be clear, but we (also) have to check the sources. We cannot accept somebody coming to you and accusing you of things that you haven’t done, and just repeating it again and again.”
In February 2011, Bahraini footballers Alaa Hubail and Sayed Mohamed Adnan were arrested and detained as part of a sweeping crackdown against anti-government protesters at the height of the Arab Spring.
Both players were dismissed from their clubs and subsequently plied their trades overseas, with 2009 Asian Player of the Year Adnan moving to Brisbane Roar for one season.
Relatives of the two told The Australian that they were beaten during captivity, although the footballers themselves did not comment.
Then Adnan and former national team goalkeeper Ali Saeed Abdulla in November came forward to endorse Salman’s candidacy. Adnan absolved Salman from any role linked to the torture of footballers and told Inside World Football that it would be “an honor” if he won FIFA’s top post.
“Sheikh Salman is a great candidate because he has the personality that could lead,” he added.
When asked whether he had failed to protect his footballers from the effects of the small island nation’s political turmoil, Salman again denied culpability.
“To say that I haven’t done anything; I don’t think it’s fair,” he said. “Because nobody knew what I did after (the 2011 uprising). Nobody knows about it, and I think that it’s only me, the players, the clubs … the people who are involved with football – they know exactly.
“To be judged by people from outside, for them to say that I haven’t done enough. I don’t think that’s right.”
Salman added that trying to convince “certain people that have their agenda … it’s just a waste of time.”
One of Salman’s platforms for election is the greater participation of women in the boardrooms of world football, pointing to the Asia Football Confederation’s record of inclusion on its board.
“I think it’s very important to get women involved,” said Salman. “We’re supportive and we’re the only confederation out of six that has five women in their (executive committee) and it shows that women can play a more vital role than in the past.”
Salman’s biggest threat to win FIFA’s presidency on Friday comes from current UEFA head Gianni Infantino, who took over the bid of his banned predecessor Michel Platini.
Other candidates include France’s Jerome Champagne, a former FIFA deputy secretary general, Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan and South African Tokyo Sexwale.
Recently, Prince Ali suggested the possibility of using tamper-proof transparent ballot boxes in the election, a method which Salman found unnecessary.
“I didn’t hear any complaints last May when we had elections. Why raise it three days before the election?” he asked. “I trust the system. People will vote for whoever they want.”
A former Blatter ally, Salman acknowledges that securing external trust when running for the head of an organization swamped by corruption scandals is key.
“I think my track record in Asia proves itself,” he said. “I’ve come to a confederation that went through difficult times (his predecessor before interim president Zhang Jilong was life-banned Qatari Mohamed bin Hammam).
“To turn it around, to bring that inner peace and harmony and understanding between all groups is something which I’m proud of.
“I can’t please 100% of the whole football community, and (I) never will,” he added. “But I think the 209 (members) on Friday will show who they want to vote for. And it matters to them. If they don’t trust me then they shouldn’t vote for me.
“And if they trust me, they will.”
Meanwhile, FIFA confirmed Wednesday that the eight year bans given to Blatter and Michel Platini have been reduced to six years.