GENEVA — As the head of African soccer battles in court this week to stay on the ballot for re-election, FIFA president Gianni Infantino is coming off a comprehensive tour of the continent.
The timing of the visit does not appear to be coincidental.
Infantino fueled talk of election interference by visiting about a dozen African countries and meeting heads of state along the way — ala predecessor Sepp Blatter — while promoting his preferred candidate, South African billionaire Patrice Motsepe.
The current president of the Confederation of African Football, Ahmad Ahmad of Madagascar, is appealing against a five-year ban imposed by FIFA for financial misconduct while running the Cairo-based body.
Although Infantino helped put Ahmad in office four years ago, it is unlikely that even a victory for the Madagascan at the Court of Arbitration for Sport would help his chances in a campaign increasingly influenced by the FIFA president.
In the aftermath of Infantino’s African tour, a deal was offered to the four candidates challenging Ahmad in the March 12 election to clear the way for Motsepe, according to the office of Senegalese candidate Augustin Senghor. No agreement was reached.
Motsepe, a mining magnate, is the brother-in-law of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and the owner of South African club Mamelodi Sundowns. Infantino met with Ramaphosa in Cape Town last month.
After Infantino completed his tour, his top aides traveled to Morocco, where the challengers met in Rabat. The city will also host the election next week.
The candidates are set meet again this weekend at a soccer tournament in Mauritania.
FIFA presidents have long courted Africa, which has 54 voters among the 211 member federations.
Infantino defied African opposition to be elected FIFA president in 2016, and one year later traveled extensively during the campaign to help Ahmad unseat longtime CAF president Issa Hayatou.
African tours during election periods “are clearly very problematic,” said Miguel Maduro, the independent official who vetted candidates for FIFA in 2017 before being ousted by the leadership in Zurich.
“Their (African members) access to money depends on the goodwill of the president of FIFA,” Maduro told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Infantino’s latest trip was detailed in news updates on FIFA’s website. He echoed Blatter’s trademark rhetoric by promising more money and praising his hosts.
“Before my arrival at FIFA, each federation received $250,000. Today it’s $1.5 million per year,” Infantino said in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo. “Is it enough? No, we can do more. We must do more.”
Infantino said in Mali that players at a new technical center will “lift this great nation to the highest heights of African and world football.” In Benin, he said the country could “very well be one of those models” for world soccer.
FIFA said in a statement that the focus of the tour “was on football development across the continent” and to hear the candidates’ views and plans.
Infantino has consistently said he wants African national and club teams to be contenders in FIFA competitions. No African team has ever gotten past the quarterfinals of a men’s or women’s World Cup, nor won the Club World Cup.
“There is an impression that Africa is going backwards,” Infantino cautioned African soccer leaders last year.
Still, the timing of Infantino’s packed travel schedule raised questions during a pandemic and just before an election. He was also likely targeting his own re-election in 2023, Maduro said.
“Of course, that is their concern. FIFA operates as a political cartel,” the Portuguese lawyer said.
The basis for Ahmad’s ban last November was a FIFA-appointed forensic audit of CAF accounts. The FIFA review committee, once led by Maduro, later excluded Ahmad as a candidate.
Even if CAS overturns Ahmad’s ban in the next week, the FIFA block on his election eligibility should stay in place. A separate decision would be needed to lift that.
It all leaves Motsepe as the favored candidate to get a four-year term as CAF president and one of the eight influential FIFA vice president spots alongside Infantino.