KIGALI, Feb 5 (Reuters) - Bahrain's Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa gained a major boost in his bid to become the next FIFA president when he received endorsement from the Confederation of African Football (CAF) on Friday.
Salman and Swiss Gianni Infantino are now clear front-runners to win this month's presidential election at soccer's ruling body FIFA, which has been embroiled in a huge corruption scandal that has seen 41 people and entities indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The governing body of football in Africa, which has 54 full voting members, said Asian Football Confederation president Salman was its preferred candidate for the poll in Zurich on Feb. 26 that will determine who succeeds Swiss Sepp Blatter.
"CAF will give full support to Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa towards his candidacy for the FIFA presidency," vice-president Suketu Patel told reporters before declining to answer questions.
The decision was a big blow for South African candidate Tokyo Sexwale who will remain in the race despite having come under pressure to withdraw.
Salman already has the backing of his own Asian confederation while Infantino, general secretary of UEFA, has the support of his European organisation along with the 10-member South American confederation CONMEBOL.
"I am deeply honoured to have earned the trust of many of our African friends at this crucial stage of the campaign effort," Salman said in a statement.
"The two endorsements only mean there is a strong groundswell in favour of my candidacy. What they don't mean is that I can sit back and relax. This campaign will be decided on the day of the vote, not before.
"Naturally I am confident I now have a reasonably strong position to work from with such support," added Salman.
The FIFA poll will be a secret ballot and the support of executive committees for candidates does not necessarily translate into a united block of votes.
STAND DOWN PLEA
Sexwale, who looked upset as he huddled with his advisers after Friday's meeting, will remain in the race despite being asked by CAF officials to stand down.
"They did ask 'can you stay back?' and my answer was I recommend that they should not consider me today...so that they should not have a difficult decision to make, and for the sake of unity," the South African told reporters.
"But certainly in the race I remain. I still stand, I go to Zurich," he added, noting that individual associations would make their own decisions.
The former anti-apartheid activist, who was imprisoned on Robben Island and was a close friend of the late South Africa President Nelson Mandela, said he did not feel betrayed by his fellow Africans.
"No. I was a man of war at one stage and I was in prison. I had been betrayed during war. I saw men die and I was betrayed like Mandela. This is all about football. Let's smile, it is a game," he explained.
CAF listened to presentations from Salman, Sexwale, Infantino and Frenchman Jerome Champagne, the former FIFA deputy general secretary, who all travelled to Rwanda to attend the meeting.
Infantino said he expected the decision and vowed to win over the single federations.
"I am not surprised. It was in the air for a few days. It was not really a secret but it is not the executive committee that votes, it is the individual associations," he added.
"I still have to visit many African countries in the coming few weeks and still have to see a few people."
Champagne declined to comment on the CAF decision.
The fifth candidate, Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan, did not attend. (Additional reporting and writing by Simon Evans in Miami; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Tony Jimenez)
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