Kigali - Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa's bid to take over as FIFA president received a massive boost on Friday with the Asian football chief getting the powerful backing of the African continent.
The Confederation of African Football (CAF) agreed to support the Bahraini's bid to succeed Sepp Blatter as president of world governing body FIFA in an election in Zurich later this month.
"The executive committee decided that CAF will give full support to Sheikh Salman with his candidacy for FIFA presidency," CAF first vice-president Suketu Patel said after an executive committee meeting during the African Nations Championship tournament in Kigali.
CAF second vice-president Almamy Kabele Camara said the decision to support the 50-year-old Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president had been reached "unanimously".
"I am proud, of course," said Sheikh Salman briefly afterwards. "If I have the support and trust, I have to be."
Already considered as one of the leading candidates to succeed Blatter along with Swiss Gianni Infantino, the UEFA number two, Sheikh Salman now takes the mantle of favourite.
Africa traditionally play the role of kingmakers in FIFA with 54 votes, the most of any of the world's regional governing bodies, with the CAF recommendations generally respected to the letter.
European body UEFA have 53 votes, Asia (46), Concacaf (North, Central American and Caribbean (35), Oceania (11) and South America (10).
Proof of the importance of Africa, four of the five contenders came to the Rwandan capital seeking to win the support of the continent - Sheikh Salman, Infantino, South African businessman Tokyo Sexwale and Frenchman Jerome Champagne, a former assistant secretary-general of FIFA.
Prince Ali bin al-Hussein of Jordan was the only candidate not to attend after recently denouncing a possible attempt to breach the election rules after CAF signed a January 15 agreement with the AFC to organise tournaments and programmes for technical development.
The agreement and the decision to support Sheikh Salman is a sign of the growing links between the African and Asian governing bodies with Qatar offering to organise the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations in place of Morocco amid the deadly Ebola pandemic.
The competition was finally hosted in Equatorial Guinea.
"This was in the air a little bit in recent days, it was an open secret," said Infantino, reacting to the CAF decision.
Nevertheless, he said he was "more than ever" in the race and "very, very confident".
CAF's decision is however a blow for the continent's only candidate Sexwale whose "low-profile campaign" had caused concerns in the South African Football Association (SAFA), and raises questions over his possible withdrawal in favour of Sheikh Salman.
The South African businessman, a former anti-apartheid prisoner alongside Nelson Mandela, himself opened the door to this possibility last week by declaring that he would do "everything so that the FIFA president would be from either Africa or Asia, but not Europe".
"The time for alliances is... coming, and it's healthy, it's democratic and it's good," he said. "Now we are talking... we are brothers, we are colleagues."
A possible stumbling block for Sheikh Salman's campaign are criticisms from human rights groups over his alleged role in the repression of pro-democratic demonstrations in 2011 in Bahrain and the use of torture, claims he denies.
Another weak point, his possible accession to the top job in FIFA could put the spotlight on the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar of which he was a strong supporter.
FIFA's 209 member associations will vote at a special congress in Zurich on February 26 for a successor for Blatter, who stepped down and was subsequently banned for eight years, following corruption allegations which have engulfed football's governing body.