Asia's caretaker football chief and presumed next president has pulled out of upcoming leadership elections, a source told AFP Thursday, in a shock move which threatens further turmoil at the troubled body.
China's Zhang Jilong will not contest elections in early May for either the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) presidency, vacated by Mohamed bin Hammam after bribery claims, or the available FIFA executive committee seat.
"He's not running. He has decided after long and careful thought," said the source close to Zhang. "He doesn't want the AFC to be split for the next two years."
The source, who did not want to be identified, said Zhang made the decision "a couple of days" ago, before Thursday's meeting in Seoul of the East Asian Football Federation's executive committee. It has not been formally announced.
He denied the former Chinese soccer boss and previous election favourite lacked the support to win the job full-time. But he said Zhang simply felt unable to unite the Asian body over a shortened two-year term.
The next president of the 46-member confederation, the world's biggest, will be decided at an AFC Congress in Kuala Lumpur in May. The winner will complete bin Hammam's current term, which runs until 2015.
Thai football chief Worawi Makudi, a bin Hammam ally, has already thrown his hat into the ring, along with Bahrain's Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa. Two more hopefuls may also be announced when the candidates are unveiled on Monday.
"The member associations are split not in half, but in several parts," the source said. "It's his (Zhang's) wish that the football family can get together, back to unity and solidarity."
He added: "We hope that the less (candidates) the better, otherwise it will be certain chaos for the AFC."
Zhang, who will stay on in his role as senior AFC vice president, was seen as a steadying hand when he was elevated to caretaker leader in bewildering circumstances in 2011.
The 61-year-old, the director of China's sports department in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, took the reins when bin Hammam was accused of vote-buying during FIFA presidential polls, and banned from football. He denies the claims.
Speaking to AFP soon after his appointment, Zhang said his priority was to "maintain stability, enhance unity, promote development, hand in hand together to manage the difficulties".
He also said he wanted to act against the damaging corruption and match-fixing scandals which have plagued Asian football. This month the AFC co-hosted an Interpol conference aimed at cracking down on rigged games.
Zhang's withdrawal will be seen as likely to signal a battle for control of the AFC between competing factions from across the vast grouping, which stretches from the Middle East to Australia.
"The election itself could be not only a split of the votes, but also a split of the hearts," the source warned.