The Confederation of African Football (Caf) has only ever had five presidents in its 60-year history and the last time a new leader was appointed was way back in 1988. Thursday's election in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, could herald a change, but long-time incumbent, Cameroon's Issa Hayatou, is not giving up without a fight. Hayatou, in charge for nearly three decades, has often been re-elected unopposed. On the two occasions when he did face a challenge, he won with landslides amongst the electorate of presidents of Africa's football associations.
In 2000, he beat Angola's Armando Machado by 47-4 votes and four years later he defeated Ismail Bhamjee of Botswana by 46-6 votes. As he seeks an eighth term on Thursday, taking on Madagascar FA head Ahmad Ahmad, Hayatou knows that victory this time around will not come nearly as easily. Whether it is reality or bluster, Ahmad says that he has been pledged more than 30 votes, which would comfortably take him over the line.
His platform of administrative reform, financial transparency and a potential reorganization of Caf competitions may be popular. But as the Malagasy freely admits what people say and what they actually do are often two very different things. Yet should Ahmad shock many by winning, the roots of his success can be traced back to February 2016 when the Fifa elections took place.
At that time, Caf publicly stated that it was supporting the Fifa presidential candidate, and front-runner, Sheikh Salman of Bahrain and instructed all of Africa to do so as well. So when Swiss-Italian Gianni Infantino was the surprise winner, it left Caf exposed. "It's one of the arguments that pushed me to go for this election," Ahmad told me on Tuesday. Insiders say the leadership of both Fifa and Caf have been pulling in different directions ever since. This was perhaps best illustrated by Infantino attending a birthday party for Zimbabwe FA president Phillip Chiyangwa in Harare last month. An event which Caf had described, for various reasons, as an "attempt to destabilize" African football's ruling body.
Chiywangwa is the campaign manager for Ahmad, so furthering the belief of those who claim that Fifa also wants change. What is also instructive is the paucity of African federation presidents who have been prepared to speak out publicly on Hayatou's behalf. Over the last month or so, the BBC has heard plenty from those who say they will be voting for Ahmad. Yet trying to find balance in coverage has been tricky. Just two men, the FA presidents of Comoros and Guinea-Bissau, have been prepared to offer public support for the Cameroonian. This appears at odds with the belief that Hayatou is guaranteed another term that would extend his reign past 30 years.
"There is no one among us who can lead Caf better than Hayatou right now," Guinea-Bissau Football Federation president Nascimento Irenio told the BBC on Tuesday. "You cannot compare the value that exists in this man as a leader with any other person in [African] football." Nonetheless, Hayatou's longevity is driving those who believe that Ahmad should be the next president. "It is clear that the winds of change are blowing in Africa," says Liberia FA president Musa Bility. "We want to move forward to a new development and a new generation of leaders. This is not a campaign in which we are going to get involved in mud-slinging and bad-mouthing. We just want change." Whether his manifesto pledges are really appealing or, more likely, the fact that he is the sole option for change, Ahmad freely admits he is only standing after being persuaded by at least 15 FA presidents to run.
Why Ahmad Ahmad?
Largely because the existing Caf rules state that only a member of the organization's Executive Committee can run for the presidency. And only Ahmad, a politician back home after being both a football player and coach in his younger days, was prepared to put himself forward. Standing in his way are not just 29 years of history but also the fact that Hayatou, a former athlete himself who once held national Cameroonian sprinting records, is a political survivor. During his time in charge, he has overseen a host of improvements to the African game but also suffered a fair share of controversies.
The Africa Cup of Nations has expanded from eight teams to 16, the number of African teams at the World Cup has increased from two to five, while club competitions have been remodeled and refinanced. Caf's own finances have also greatly increased. And while on his watch, the first World Cup to be staged in Africa, took place in 2010 in South Africa.
There have, however, also been several question marks against the veteran. Chief among them the reprimand by the International Olympic Committee in 2011 after an ethics committee probe into the acceptance of payments from a marketing firm.
Another three years in office? But through it all, Hayatou has stayed in power, with a vice-like grip according to his critics, but that grip could well be loosening. Nonetheless, he has looked remarkably relaxed as he strolls in the corridors in his hotel in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. When asked for an interview on Tuesday, he accepted, but on the condition that it was done after Thursday's election. But will he be talking then as Caf president or a man who is moving on after more than four decades in sports administration?