Fifa: Who is presidential candidate Sheikh Salman?

Sheikh Salman
Sheikh Salman has reacted angrily to claims of complicity in human rights abuses

I first met Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa when he became the head of Asian football in May 2013 with a landslide majority.

A softly spoken man, Salman does not exude the charisma of outgoing Fifa president Sepp Blatter or Michel Platini, Uefa's head and a vice-president of football's world governing body - both, of course, currently suspended.

Yet he has forged a seemingly impregnable position at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and could be months away from leading the global game.

The 49-year-old, a Manchester United fan and an avid hunter of wild boar, is a cousin of the King of Bahrain and has been at the heart of his country's football since the early 1990s.

During his presidency of the Bahrain Football Association, the national team came to within a match of qualifying for both the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, and finished fourth at the 2004 Asian Cup. Not bad for a country with a population of just over 500,000 people.

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The human rights allegations

One of the recurring questions that dogged his AFC campaign and his successful election concerned his alleged role in human rights violations while head of Bahrain's football federation.

During the series of pro-democracy uprisings referred to as the Arab Spring, a number of Bahraini athletes, including some of the best players from the national football team, were arrested for taking part in protests.

Striker Ala'a Hubail, who was top-scorer at the 2004 Asian Cup, said athletes were tortured before being released without charge.

But Salman's answer was unequivocal: "The question is, do you have proof that the Bahrain FA, under my presidency, took part in non-football activities?"

Nobody did.

But that question has been be resurrected as he hits the Fifa presidential campaign trail.

What does he stand for?

Sheikh Salman and Fifa president Sepp Blatter
Sheikh Salman and Fifa's outgoing president Sepp Blatter

Since joining Fifa's top table, Salman has quietly grown in stature - and in Blatter's favour.

He chaired the committee that settled the question of when the 2022 World Cup in Qatar should take place.

And he is a voice on the taskforce that is seeking to untangle the football-political dispute between Israel and the Palestinians.

His ideas for Fifa are still unknown, but when he became the head of Asian football, he targeted match-fixing, grassroots development and increasing the number of women players.

Last month, the AFC became the first confederation to hold a women's futsal championship, won by Iran.

But his appreciation of football from a fan's perspective remains open to question.

He did not attend either the opening match or the final of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and, back in 2013, seemed rather confused when I asked him how his presidency of the AFC would benefit fans.

"I don't know what you mean," he said.

"Will there be a tangible impact for fans at clubs, now that you're here?" I asked.

"I still don't understand your question," he insisted.

Eventually, he said it was down to individual federations to look after the fans.

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Ali v Salman - the battles for Asian votes

In the race for Fifa's top job, Salman will face Prince Ali bin al-Hussain of Jordan, a former supporter.

The pair became rivals in 2014 when Salman wrested Asia's much-coveted Fifa vice-presidency away from Ali, leaving the latter furious.

That outmanoeuvring, as well as his election success, was masterminded by yet another Arab royal, Sheikh Ahmad of Kuwait, whose patronage is likely to be decisive once again.

Ahmad is a key player among national Olympic associations and therefore wields extraordinary influence.

In this year's Fifa election, Salman instructed Asia's voters to back Blatter and not Ali who, after all, was one of their own.

When Platini said that he would run in next year's election, Salman backed him, once again ignoring Ali's candidacy.

He should be able to count on most of Asia supporting him and, if Platini - currently suspended for 90 days - is not allowed to run, much of Europe as well.

With Sheikh Ahmad's help in mopping up the other votes he needs, Salman is likely to be a formidable candidate.

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