HARARE – Their campaign trails have been all about tough-as-nails talk that will pull African football from the abyss of corruption, but candidates angling for the biggest football job on the continent cannot help but tremble before the vote is cast today.
If anything, anxiety is running high in Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa where Football Association presidents have been pouring in for the feisty fight for control of Africa’s game leadership.
Incumbent Confederation of African Football (Caf) president Issa Hayatou, 71, who has been in office since 1988, arrived in Ethiopia on Monday having flown directly from Lusaka where he attended the just-concluded Under-20 Afcon won by Zambia.
He did not waste time in pulling last-minute political pyrotechnics aiming to secure an eighth term as head of the continental football governing body.
Hayatou’s sole challenger Ahmad Ahmad, the Madagascar Football Association head, has through Cosafa and Zimbabwe Football Association (Zifa) president Philip Chiyangwa been pulling all the stops to woo voters, equally setting the tone for an explosive electoral congress.
Cosafa, a grouping of 14 countries, has vowed to vote for Ahmad today and speaking at a pre-victory party disguised as his 58th birthday party last month, Chiyangwa claimed they already had 35 votes in the Malagasy’s favour.
In order to win the Caf presidency, a candidate only needs 28 votes which probably sent shivers down Hayatou’s spine.
Chiyangwa will hope he did not show his hand too early after the Nigerian government this week came out advising the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) president Amaju Pinnick to vote for Hayatou.
The government insisted that Nigeria’s vote should consider their political relationship with neighbours Cameroon where Hayatou hails from.
Pinnick was in Harare last month for Chiyangwa’s bash where he drummed up support for Ahmad but it seems he will think twice before voting for his preferred candidate.
The NFF boss was summoned to the offices of acting-Nigerian president Yemi Osinbajo earlier this week where he was whipped into line ahead of today’s vote.
“Nigeria’s position is to vote in favour of our national interest. Not too long ago,
“The Federal Government made categorically clear our position,” Nigeria Sports minister Solomon Dalung told reporters in Abuja yesterday.
Dalung went on to remind Pinnick of the bilateral relationship between Nigeria and Cameroon, adding that the vote was not just about football.
“The position is that in view of the fact that Cameroon has been a major key player in the war against insurgency and the involvement of Cameroon in fighting for the stability of Nigeria, it would be out of the foreign policy context of Nigeria to abandon Cameroon,” he said.
“The acting president (Osinbajo) directed me and I have communicated appropriately that if the only vote that would come to Hayatou would be from Nigeria, Nigeria should stand with Hayatou.
However, resistance is brewing even from within the ranks of Cameroonians with former Cameroon striker Samuel Eto’o, a four-time African Footballer of the Year, advocating for a change at the head of Caf.
While the ex-Barcelona and Inter Milan forward said Hayatou has made a huge contribution to African football over his 29 years at the helm, he wants the body to make way for new reforms to be brought in.
“No institution resists the laws of cycles and change,” Eto’o, who currently plays his club football for Turkish outfit Antalyaspor, told Jeune Afrique.
“I just hope that these changes will help African football to evolve, because it is the most important. The development of CAN (the Africa Cup of Nations) has improved infrastructure, and that is important.
“But the main beneficiaries of these changes must be players; especially those in Africa. We should bring more freshness to open up other horizons, without denying what has been done.”
Speaking to the Daily News from Addis Ababa yesterday, veteran journalist Mitchell Obi said the Caf presidential polls were too close to call.
“The Caf president I saw and greeted last (Tuesday) night looking relaxed and unruffled at the lounge of Sheraton Hotel did not reveal a candidate embattled,” Obi said.
“I think this must be his fiercest contest and he seems to relish this last challenge . . . But you must give it to the Ahmad group.
“They have shown a rare heart to challenge the Lion from Cameroon and all those who care for the health of the beautiful game in Africa must relish the fresh breadth of air in terms of competitive politics devoid of bitterness.
“From my findings, this battle may be too close to call. I don’t see a landslide.
“There are cracks in all the regional fronts.”
Hayatou has already set the ground work for retribution if he wins today’s elections.
During his time in Lusaka, the Cameroonian was able to get close to Football Association of Zambia (Faz) president Andrew Kamanga.
Since 2015, Kamanga and his predecessor Kalusha Bwalya have been at loggerheads but Hayatou managed to mediate talks between the two.
Although Zambia is part of Cosafa, it is not clear whether Kamanga will vote for Ahmad today.
While Chiyangwa has been using megaphone diplomacy to campaign for Ahmad, on the other hand Hayatou has been moving stealthily.
The Cameroonian has left Lagardere Sports, a France-based television company with the rights to broadcast all Caf competitions until 2028, to do his bidding.
Lagardere cannot afford a Hayatou defeat today — they have a lot to lose since Ahmad will likely review the company’s deal with Caf once in office.