MANAMA, Bahrain — A pair of sheikhs were the big winners Thursday at a meeting of Asian soccer leaders.
Sheikh Ahmad Fahad Al Ahmad Al Sabah, an Olympic powerbroker from Kuwait, was elected to FIFA's powerful executive committee, fueling speculation the former OPEC chairman could one day succeed Sepp Blatter as president of soccer's governing body. And minutes earlier, Bahrain royal family member Sheik Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa was re-elected as president of the Asian Football Confederation.
The two sheikhs, who both ran unopposed, are allies of each other and Blatter.
The elections were watched from the front row by Blatter, who is strongly favored to win his own re-election contest on May 29.
Sheikh Ahmad was elected after a rule change worked in his favor, and after four rival candidates stood aside to give him a clear run. By winning the two-year FIFA mandate, he set himself up to run again in 2017. That would clear his campaign schedule for a possible Blatter succession ahead of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
The Kuwaiti sheikh built strong campaigning links as longtime head of the Olympic Council of Asia, and, since 2012, as president of the Association of National Olympic Committees. He was seen as a key supporter of IOC President Thomas Bach's election victory in 2013.
Thursday's elections confirmed Asia's close ties to the FIFA leadership four years after then-AFC president Mohamed bin Hammam's failed election challenge against Blatter.
With Sheikh Salman's election as AFC president, the 49-year-old Bahraini also automatically gets the FIFA vice presidency allocated to Asia. That position was previously held by Prince Ali bin Al Hussein of Jordan, who is running against Blatter.
Sheikh Salman has led the 47-nation AFC since 2013, taking over from Bin Hammam, a Qatari who FIFA expelled for alleged mismanagement of AFC finances. Bin Hammam beat Sheikh Salman in a bitter contest in 2009 for a seat on the FIFA executive committee amid accusations of improper lobbying among Asian Olympic officials.
In a speech to delegates Thursday, Blatter praised Sheikh Salman for his "remarkable sense of organization and diplomacy."
Blatter said the Bahraini royal family member brought back "the boat of the Asian Football Confederation that at a certain time has been in waters that were not so very clear or ... so very clean."
Blatter did not mention his upcoming election, and the AFC chose not to give the stage to his three rivals who all attended in Bahrain: Prince Ali, Dutch federation president Michael van Praag and former Portugal great Luis Figo.
Prince Ali chose not to challenge Sheikh Salman in Thursday's election, nor seek a FIFA executive committee seat. His FIFA vice presidency was effectively lost when the AFC changed its statutes last year to automatically give it to the elected president.
Another last-minute change Thursday allowed the ballot order to be organized in Sheikh Ahmad's favor. The two-year FIFA position — vacated by Sheikh Salman — was voted on ahead of a pair of four-year mandates. Sheikh Ahmad was given a clear run when all potential rivals withdrew to focus on the subsequent election.
A request by the South Korean federation to speak against the change in statutes was rejected.
After Sheikh Ahmad was elected by acclaim, South Korean football president Chung Mong-gyu, whose family owns World Cup sponsor Hyundai, lost in the subsequent election for FIFA seats.
The winners were another royal, Tengku Abdullah, president of Malaysia's football body, and Kohzo Tashima of Japan. Japan returns to FIFA's inner circle after a four-year absence.
The other defeated candidate Thursday was Worawi Makudi of Thailand. Makudi's 17-year spell at FIFA was marred by unproven claims of misconduct in World Cup bidding and an investigation of financial conflicts of interest in FIFA-funded projects.
Asia's four elected FIFA delegates will take part in a key World Cup debate in Zurich on May 30.
FIFA's executive committee must agree on each continent's quota of qualifying places for future World Cups. Asia has four guaranteed places in the 32-team lineup, plus a chance to get a fifth in an intercontinental playoff.
Blatter has encouraged confederations to seek more entries, likely taking from Europe's quota of 13 qualifying slots.