Cameroon (AP) — The son of a sultan from northern Cameroon, Issa Hayatou has ruled African soccer for 27 years and counting, a decade longer than Sepp Blatter has been in charge of FIFA.
Now FIFA's senior vice president, Hayatou, a 68-year-old former physical education teacher, has played many roles in the quarter of a century he has sat on world soccer's powerful executive committee, where only Blatter ranks higher.
Of all those roles, Hayatou is best at being a wily survivor.
Once a critical opponent of Blatter in a FIFA presidential election in 2002, Hayatou re-emerged from a resounding defeat to be a loyal lieutenant, whipping up support for the controversial FIFA president. At the Women's World Cup final in Canada on Sunday, Hayatou will stand in for his boss — the man he recently called "my dear Sepp" and the same man he and others filed a criminal complaint against and tried to force out of FIFA before the 2002 election.
Hayatou could also be a candidate to lead the globe's most popular sport again when Blatter departs in the coming months. But only if he's ready for another fight and able to stay unscathed by the allegations of graft sweeping through FIFA, claims that have also dogged Hayatou.
If he does take a second run at the presidency, any alliance now with the outgoing Blatter, who could still influence the transfer of power, might work in Hayatou's favor. That may be relevant considering Blatter's public rift with UEFA President Michel Platini, who could stand as Europe's candidate.
"Hayatou is as strong a uniting figure in Africa as you can get, and Blatter is going to remain very, very influential in the way the landscape is shifting," African soccer analyst Colin Udoh said.
Blatter last month announced his intention to resign in the midst of widening investigations by United States and Swiss authorities into alleged long-running corruption at FIFA.
As senior VP, Hayatou was delegated to hand over the women's trophy in Vancouver, pushing African soccer's strongman into the spotlight at a time when FIFA is in crisis. The attention may not be what Hayatou, whose family is among the political elite back home in Cameroon, wants right now.
He has made no announcement of his intentions regarding the planned election late this year or early next year to replace Blatter, shrugging off questions from The Associated Press last month with characteristic gruffness.
"Which election?" Hayatou said.
When told the FIFA election, and asked if Africa would have a candidate, he replied: "I don't know."
Hayatou's delay could be about getting the timing of any announcement right. But it could also indicate his reluctance to run and invite more scrutiny.
In 2011, Hayatou was officially reprimanded by the International Olympic Committee, which he is also a member of, for receiving $20,000 from a sports marketing company in a FIFA kickbacks scandal. He has also been accused, along with another African official, of accepting $1.5 million in bribes to vote for Qatar to host the 2022 World Cup. That heavily tarnished vote is one focus of the investigation by Swiss authorities.
Hayatou denies any wrongdoing, as does Qatar, and his response to the accusations, like any criticism of him over the years, has been to hit back. He denounced allegations of vote rigging uncovered by a British newspaper as Western bias.
The combative style has got the tall, heavily-built Hayatou far in African soccer, where a show of strength is often more important than anything else. Once faced at a news conference with an uncomfortable question regarding his voting history at FIFA, Hayatou responded by staring the young reporter down and questioning his age and qualifications to challenge a senior official.
"You don't know who I voted for," Hayatou told the journalist in French, his mother tongue. "You cannot speculate on this, you aren't even as old as my son. You cannot just shoot at me like that."
Sometimes if the crusty Hayatou doesn't like a question from the media, he simply ignores it.
It's not polished PR, but Hayatou's way has kept a complicated continent, with an Arabic north, a French-speaking middle, and an English-speaking south, under his control for nearly 30 years and grown it to a point where his Confederation of African Football just signed a $1 billion TV rights and marketing deal.
His own story is not a rags-to-riches tale, although Hayatou has learned to deal with hardship, for years managing a serious kidney illness that requires regular dialysis sessions.
With a well-connected family — his older brother was prime minister of Cameroon — Hayatou was secretary general of the Cameroon Football Federation at 28, the head of the sports ministry in his mid-30s and president of the Confederation of African Football and the most senior soccer official on the continent by 41. He was also a champion runner in Cameroon and on the national basketball squad.
At CAF, he blocked a challenge at the last presidential election by changing the rules in the run-up to the vote. This year, he removed age limits to open the way for yet another term in charge when he had pledged this one would be his last. With both, there was no major dissent.
Hayatou's one failure, though, was the 2002 FIFA presidential election, when Blatter beat him heavily by 139 votes to 56 in a bitter contest. That stinging defeat, the criminal probes into FIFA and a mini-mutiny against his CAF rule in North Africa may be enough for Hayatou to decide against another bid for the top job. With 25 years on FIFA's ruling board, Hayatou the survivor has probably learned when and when not to pick a fight.
Imray reported from Cape Town, South Africa. AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar in Geneva and AP writer Michelle Faul in Lagos, Nigeria contributed to this report.