FIFA candidates head to Miami to meet CONCACAF in crisis

The five FIFA presidential candidates meet in Miami on Friday with the election's most inscrutable voters who are deep in their own leadership race amid a financial crisis.

Nothing is simple these days with scandal-rocked CONCACAF which has had three recent presidents indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice in a sprawling FIFA bribery case.

Still, the 35 FIFA voting federations from North and Central America and the Caribbean could be decisive in the Feb. 26 election.

"Every member can make their own decision," Victor Montagliani, the Canadian Soccer Association's president, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "The CONCACAF executive committee is not going to issue any statement that they will support any candidate."

That freedom alone makes the region's intentions unpredictable, plus its non-aligned status with the FIFA candidates coming from Africa, Asia and Europe.

They are: Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al Khalifa, the presumed front-runner from Bahrain who leads Asian soccer; UEFA general secretary Gianni Infantino from Switzerland; Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, a former FIFA vice president from Jordan; former FIFA international relations director Jerome Champagne of France; and South African businessman Tokyo Sexwale, who leads FIFA's anti-discrimination task force.

Prince Ali had pockets of support in the region when losing to now-banned FIFA President Sepp Blatter last May, while Infantino now has pledged votes from the seven-member Central American group.

Two weeks from the ballot in Zurich, FIFA politics are not the main reason for the special gathering of 41-member CONCACAF, which includes small island federations not yet affiliated to the world body.

CONCACAF, like FIFA, is pushing through wide-ranging reforms to improve governance and protect against corruption. Both soccer bodies had their leadership structures and reputations shredded last May when U.S. and Swiss investigations of corruption spanning decades were unsealed.

In an extreme scenario, both bodies risk being shut down and indicted as corporate defendants by federal prosecutors.

On Friday, CONCACAF members will take a position on the slate of FIFA reforms being voted on this month and update on their own revamp.

"We thought it was important that we get together now rather than in Zurich," Montagliani said. "When we leave Miami we can agree to disagree on some things but at least everyone is clear."

Money will also be a main talking point.

FIFA left a $10 million hole in CONCACAF finances when taking its audit panel's advice in December to block funding to the region. That has hurt members, some from tiny Caribbean islands, where FIFA cash generated by the $5 billion-earning World Cup is key to survival.

"We want to get a clear indication of why it was done," said Montagliani. "At the end of the day, FIFA is there for its members. We will work it out and the money will be released accordingly."

CONCACAF meets without a president until it holds a May 12 election in Mexico City.

The past two elected leaders — Jack Warner of Trinidad and Tobago and Jeffrey Webb, a Cayman Islands banker living in Logansville, Georgia — and their interim successor, Alfredo Hawit of Honduras, are DoJ targets. Webb already pleaded guilty and faces sentence in June in a Brooklyn court.

Montagliani is among four men already seeking one of the hottest seats in world soccer. The others are: FIFA appeal committee chairman Larry Mussenden of Bermuda, Gordon Derrick of Antigua and Barbuda, and Mark Rodrigues of Guyana.

"It's off to a good start," said Montagliani, a fluent speaker of Spanish and French who was endorsed this week by the Central American group.

"Obviously we need to get our house in order," he said. "There's a lot of good people in CONCACAF and a lot of people are upset, but I think everyone realizes the only way we get out of this is to come together."