MIAMI (Reuters) - African soccer officials will decide on Friday which of FIFA's presidential candidates they will back as the campaign to replace Sepp Blatter at the helm of the sport's troubled ruling body reaches the home straight.
With 54 voting nations, Africa's choice at a meeting in Kigali, Rwanda will be crucial in the ballot of 209 member associations on Feb. 26 in Zurich.
FIFA is voting for a new leader amidst its biggest ever corruption scandal which has seen 41 people and entities indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Leading contenders Gianni Infantino, the Swiss general secretary of European soccer's ruling body UEFA, and Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, are both in Kigali ahead of the CAF meeting.
CAF president Issa Hayatou, who is also FIFA's acting chief, told French newspaper L'Equipe his confederation was originally behind UEFA president Michel Platini before the Frenchman was banned from soccer for eight years by FIFA's Ethics Committee.
"If Platini had been a candidate Africa would have voted for him that is sure," said Cameroonian Hayatou, who raised the prospect of Bahraini royal Salman being the preferred choice.
"If we decide to support Salman is it a crime? Who can prevent us from doing this?" he said.
South African Tokyo Sexwale and Frenchman Jerome Champagne are also expected to be in Rwanda but fellow FIFA presidential candidate Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan will not be attending, his spokesman told Reuters.
Last month UEFA's executive committee gave unanimous backing to Infantino while Salman has the support of the AFC executive.
Although member associations do not have to follow their executive committee's voting recommendations in the secret ballot to decide the FIFA president, the two leading candidates are expected to have the bulk of their own continent behind them - making the battle for Africa even more crucial.
Infantino has won the backing of CONMEBOL, the 10 member confederation for South America, and seven Central American FA's have also publicly supported him but the Salman camp is confident ahead of the African vote.
South African businessman and politician Sexwale could have an influence on CAF's decision as he will face pressure to withdraw from the FIFA race before Friday's vote if it becomes clear he does not have the support of his own confederation.
Sexwale, an apartheid-era political prisoner who was jailed alongside Nelson Mandela, recognized that possibility when he said in a radio interview last week that he would like to see FIFA's next president be "an African or an Asian".
"Tokyo Sexwale represents South Africa which is a great ally of CAF," said Hayatou.
"We can't be at odds with him but if he withdraws... we are not against Sexwale but we are waiting for the decision of his own federation who say his campaign has been too low-profile," he added.
A spokesman for Sexwale told Reuters that he had not yet made any decision on whether to withdraw.
After the CAF meeting, the next key date for the candidates is Feb. 11 when they will give presentations to the CONCACAF confederation for North and Central America and the Caribbean at a meeting in Miami.
CONCACAF has 35 member associations with votes in the FIFA election.
UEFA president Platini was banned along with FIFA chief Blatter after a FIFA Ethics Committee investigation of a 2011 payment of two million Swiss francs ($2.01 million) made by the world governing body to the former France captain.
Reporting By Simon Evans; Editing by Ken Ferris