CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — Gianni Infantino expects more than half of Africa's 54 countries to back him in the FIFA presidential election on Friday.
"I will make an impact (in Africa). I will have a majority of the African votes," the UEFA secretary general said in Cape Town on Monday on a short-notice visit to see where Nelson Mandela was jailed during apartheid.
Infantino's claim, if true, means most African countries will defy their continent's soccer leadership. The Confederation of African Football executive committee has formally endorsed Infantino's main opponent, Sheikh Salman of Bahrain.
Infantino said his belief came from private visits to Africa, FIFA's largest confederation by number of voting countries, and a crucial battleground for votes.
"In the discussions I've had with many African (soccer) presidents, I can say I feel very confident," he said.
Infantino visited Robben Island, the prison where Mandela was jailed during apartheid, on the invitation of fellow FIFA candidate Tokyo Sexwale. South African businessman Sexwale, also a former political prisoner on the island, said he invited all four other candidates, but Sheikh Salman of Bahrain, Prince Ali of Jordan, and Frenchman Jerome Champagne couldn't find time in their schedules just four days before the election in Zurich.
Infantino and Sheikh Salman have emerged as favorites to succeed Sepp Blatter in the vote forced by the corruption scandal at FIFA. Salman has the backing of Asia, while Infantino has the support of Europe.
Appearing together at a news conference, Infantino and Sexwale called the South African visit symbolic, but the importance of Africa's votes to Infantino's chances was perhaps underlined by his decision to make the last-minute trip. Having received the invitation just a few days ago, the Swiss arrived in South Africa from Geneva on Monday morning, and was making the 13-hour flight back to Switzerland on Monday night.
Sexwale has struggled to gain support in his campaign and, when his home African continent snubbed him in favor of Salman, he denied he will withdraw before the election.
For Infantino, appearing alongside Sexwale was bound to lead to speculation he was seeking an endorsement from one of his opponents.
But Infantino said there were no deals on the table yet.
"I have nothing to hide," he said.
Sexwale, however, said he was "a realist," and the time would come to talk to his opponents should, as expected, he fail to gain significant support in the election.
"Towards the finishing line there will be alliances," Sexwale said. "I am open to alliances, I am open to negotiations."