MIAMI Four of the candidates for president of FIFA are heading to Qatar for meetings on Saturday, with one of them, South African Tokyo Sexwale, saying "the time for alliances is coming".
The development suggests that electoral horse-trading might be about to begin in the battle to replace Sepp Blatter as head of football's world governing body.
Spokesmen for the frontrunners, Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa and Gianni Infantino, and for Sexwale confirmed to Reuters that they will be in Doha for a game on Saturday and to meet with Asian member associations of FIFA.
A spokesman for Jordanian Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, also a candidate, later confirmed he would be travelling to Qatar for Saturday's game - the final of the Asian Football Confederation Under-23 Championship between South Korea and Japan.
The other candidates, Jerome Champagne, a former FIFA deputy general secretary, declined to comment on whether he would also be in Qatar.
Speaking on South Africa's Metro FM radio on Thursday, Sexwale confirmed that he would also be in Qatar as a "guest of Sheikh Salman" and hinted at eventual support for an Asian candidate.
"The time for alliances is coming. This is the new thing that I am saying. It is healthy, democratic and it is good.
"If I see that Tokyo's chances are not good ... I am still FIFA, but which president would I want? The time for alliances will come," he said. That time would be before the Feb. 26 vote, he said.
"We are now talking, this one is talking to me, that one is talking to me. But who is talking? We are brothers, we are colleagues, we are comrades in arms," Sexwale said.
One of the key power brokers in world sport, Kuwaiti Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fadah Al-Sabah, told Reuters in October that he hoped his ally Sheikh Salman, the Asian football chief, and Infantino, the general secretary of the European football body, UEFA, would strike a deal before the vote.
"I hope there will not be a difficult situation, I hope there will be a coordination and we will find a solution," he said. Both Salman and Infantino have denied any deal is in place.
Sexwale declined to discuss directly whether he would withdraw from the election but said he wanted to see an African or an Asian become the next president.
"There is this desperation of 'withdraw', 'withdraw'. In whose interest?" he asked.
"Let me tell you my strategy ... what is the bottom line? It is not Tokyo Sexwale," he said. "The bottom line for me, and I am appealing to Europe, to European voters, with the support of Europe let's have an Asian or African president. That is the bottom line."
Sexwale's campaign has been criticised by his own South African Football Federation. Although it stated its support for him this week, the group said his bid had been "low key" and asked him to "come and explain himself".
The South African, who was imprisoned in Robben Island during apartheid and was a close friend of Nelson Mandela, suggested Infantino would not be the right choice, as another Swiss following Blatter, who has been president since 1998.
"He is my friend, he is a buddy, but I would say maybe we should not replace Blatter with another Swiss," he said.
Blatter and Michel Platini, who had been a strong favourite to succeed him, were banned over a payment of two million Swiss francs ($2 million) FIFA made to Platini with Blatter's approval in 2011 for work done a decade earlier.
(Reporting By Simon Evans and Mike Collett, editing by Larry King and Dominic Evans)