Issa Hayatou, born a prince and emperor of African football for three decades, has been at the centre of scandal — but never wounded — for much of his life.
The 70-year-old Cameroonian, seeking an eighth term as head of the Confederation of African Football (CAF) in an election on Thursday, defied his royal roots early on when he chose sport as a career.
“It was a scandal in my family. I wanted to do sport, that was my passion,” Hayatou said in an interview with Jeune Afrique magazine.
He went on to represent Cameroon in basketball and athletics, holding the national 400m and 800m records for a while.
While other football barons — Sepp Blatter, Michel Platini and the like — rose and were deposed by football’s riches, Hayatou has faced allegations that came to nothing. Hayatou became FIFA’s figurehead acting president and guided it through elections after Blatter’s downfall.
This CAF election will be the first in which he has faced a serious challenge.
Hayatou comes from the Garoua region of northern Cameroon, where his father was the sultan when he was born on August 9, 1946.
The influence of the wealthy Muslim family goes far beyond their poor home region.
The Hayatou clan is close to the ruling party of President Paul Biya, who has been in power in Cameroon since 1982. The CAF leader’s brother, Sadou Hayatou, was prime minister in 1991-1992.
Another brother, Alim Garga Hayatou, has been secretary of state for health for many years and has taken on the sultan’s title.
Issa Hayatou has largely stayed out of Cameroon politics.
Having chosen sporting studies, rather than architecture in a foreign college, Hayatou became a physical education teacher at the General Leclerc school in Yaounde, which drew the children of the country’s top families.
At 28 he became secretary general of the Cameroon football federation and 11 years later its president.
While Roger Milla was spectacularly showing off Cameroon’s football skills and his hip wiggle at the 1990 World Cup, Hayatou used his political talents to waltz into the CAF presidency.
He has reigned over African football ever since, refusing to give up power despite a kidney transplant in 2015.
His controversies have included being accused by Britain’s Sunday Times of taking money in exchange for backing Qatar to get the 2022 World Cup.
In 2011, Hayatou was reprimanded by the International Olympic Committee over money he received from the scandal-tainted sports marketing company ISL in 1995. He has always insisted the money went to CAF.
Hayatou, who bid for the FIFA presidency in 2002 but was hammered by Blatter and later became an ally, was also criticised for CAF’s reaction after a militant attack on a bus carrying the Togo team to the 2010 Cup of African Nations. Two people were killed.
But CAF at first suspended Togo for not going to the tournament before going back on the decision.
Hayatou has been praised for bringing in sponsorship money to African tournaments and increasing Africa’s places at the World Cup.
He also tried to get European clubs and federations to pay for the talent that they draw from Africa.
Hayatou’s comment seen as criticising European coaches in Africa did not please everyone: “The rich countries import the raw material — talent — and they often send to the continent their less valuable technicians.”