Steve Wilson reports on how the race to become West Asian representative on FIFA’s executive committee turned personal

Asian football may lag behind its European and South American counterparts, but a recent election to fill the position of West Asian representative to FIFA’s executive committee proved they are a match for anyone when it comes to political back biting and mudslinging. The acrimonious campaign plumbed such depths, with allegations of mental illness, vote buying and personal vendettas, that it became too unpalatable even for Sepp Blatter, who was forced to play the unlikely role of moral arbiter. 

The trouble started when the incumbent, Mohamed bin Hammam, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president since 1996, promised to quit his role were the vote to go against him. Bin Hammam is an ally of Blatter at present but is known to have designs on succeeding him as president of FIFA. The challenger, Sheikh Salman Al Khalifa, president of the Bahrain Football Association, was standing on a ticket of reform and transparency, claiming to speak for many by decrying bin Hammam’s record in office.

Among Al Khalifa’s most vocal supporters was South Korean tycoon Chung Mong-joon, owner of Hyundai and a FIFA executive committee member who also has ambitions to unseat Blatter, and perhaps sensed an opportunity to remove one of his rivals.

After Bin Hammam was quoted in a television interview using a metaphor to describe Chung which alluded to cutting off the Korean’s arms and head – which Bin Hammam tried to brush off by saying his words had been taken out of context – Chung responded by questioning his adversary’s sanity. “It looks like Mr Hammam is suffering from mental problems,” said Chung. “I want to advise him to consider going to hospital.”

Blatter stepped in, issuing a plea for “the values of fair-play and ethics” to be upheld via a statement on the FIFA website after Bin Hammam received further criticism, from Kuwait’s Sheikh Ahmad Al Sabah, head of the Olympic Council of Asia, and the AFC’s former general secretary, Peter Velappan. Blatter’s request was largely ignored.

Moves were already underway by Justice Petrus Damaseb, acting head of FIFA’s ethics committee, to investigate the election. He had been asked to do so by Australian broadcaster Les Murray, also a member of the watchdog committee, who claimed to have received “reliable information” that vote buying had been attempted by Al Khalifa. “The information points to at least one high level football official being involved,” Murray wrote in a letter to Damaseb.

Before the ballot the AFC withdrew the voting rights of five of its members, all of whom were previously hostile to its president, Bin Hammam. Four countries, Laos, East Timor, Afghanistan and Mongolia, were declared ineligible for not taking part in at least three AFC competitions in the last two years. That decision was overturned by FIFA – it being their election and not the AFC’s – with the countries’ participation in Under-13 and Under-14 tournaments deemed to count. Kuwait’s ban due to political interference in their national federation was temporarily lifted by FIFA to allow them a vote.

In a last ditch attempt to curry favour the night before the vote, Bin Hammam reversed his policy of seeking to move the headquarters of the AFC away from Kuala Lumpur, though his eventual victory was still wafer thin. Needing only a simple majority, Bin Hammam got the support of 23 of the 46 federations to Al Khalifa’s 21, with two ballots spoiled, for reasons as yet undisclosed (one member voted for both candidates while the other merely scratched his ballot paper).

Khalifa sounded generous in defeat, though he was quick to remind Bin Hammam that half his constituency had not validated his leadership. “[The vote] sent a clear message that so many countries are not happy with his management and things need to be done,” said Khalifa, though “we can all be friends again”. Bin Hammam, too, was unwilling to dwell on recent events. “I want to start a new page and refocus my work on football,” he said. “I would really like to re-establish a good relationship with [my rivals] for the benefit of Asia.” Laudable sentiments, both, though the chances of the pair kissing and making up any time soon seems as remote as a team from their confederation lifting the World Cup in South Africa next year.

From WSC 269 July 2009

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