Historic contest for AFC President
History will be made in more ways than one at the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) Extraordinary Congress in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on 2 May. A new AFC President will be chosen amongst four contenders and the front runner for the post is the suave 47 year old soft spoken but visionary Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa of Bahrain. There are four contenders for this coveted post. The others are Worawi Makudi (Thailand), Yusuf Al Serkal (UAE) and Dr. Hafej Al Medlej (Saudi Arabia). Whoever wins will be the 11th President of the AFC and will replace the incumbent Zhang Jilong of China.
The first AFC president was Lo Man Kam of Hong Kong in 1954. Since then, there have been four presidents from Hong Kong, three from Malaysia, including the long serving Tunku Abdul Rahman from 1958—1976 and Hamzah Abu Samah from 1978 till 1994 and one each from Iran (Kambiz Atabay 1976-78), Qatar (Mohammed bin Hamam 2002-2011) and China.
So the 11th President of AFC will be from a new country. The continent’s 47 member nations will have to choose judiciously from four experienced campaigners as Asian football is at the crossroads and needs to rid itself of the scourge of betting and match fixing. Asian football requires a vision for the future and that is why Sheikh Salman of Bahrain is seen as a hot favourite to win, as with his experience and diplomacy, he can re-build trust with the world governing body FIFA and restore confidence amongst sponsors for the game in the continent.
He is recognised as a man of firm principles, who desires change. It is these qualities which give him a distinct edge over his three rivals. Worawi, Yusuf Al Serkal and Dr. Hafej were all associated with Mohammed bin Hamman’s regime and as many AFC members desire change, they could opt for a new face but with experience in football administration.
Sheikh Salman has worked extensively in football and has been chairman of AFC’s Disciplinary committee and Deputy Chairman of FIFA’s Disciplinary Committee and attended 12 major international tournaments, including the FIFA World Cup in Japan in 2002 and the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
He has firm views regarding solving the pernicious problems of match-fixing and has launched his candidature with a visionary Asia United campaign. Uniting Asia is the key aim of Sheikh Salman’s campaign and to repair the relationship between the AFC’s 47 member associations and FIFA. He also wants to safeguard football’s future by leading the fight against illegal betting, match fixing and doping. He has visited several Asian countries to announce his campaign and wants to create a harmonious relationship with the confederation’s 47 members. His campaign message is on his website www.asiaunited2013.com
I was invited from India to attend a Press Conference, at the luxurious Radisson Diplomat Hotel in Manama, Bahrain, which was attended by media personnel from numerous Asian countries. He handled the grueling two hour question and answer session with aplomb and lucidly explained his vision for the future of football in Asia.
At this press conference, he revealed that in the AFC Congress on 2 May, he would also be contesting for a seat on the FIFA Executive Committee. His rival for that post is Hasan Al Thawadi of Qatar. In 2009, Sheikh Salman had contested for this post against former AFC president Mohammed bin Hammam but narrowly lost by two votes. Explaining the defeat, he said that he “didn’t see it as a failure. I got to know a lot of people…Asia got to know me better.” So, he hopes that this time he can pull of the double winning the election for AFC president and the seat on the FIFA Executive Committee.
The excitement in Bahrain was palpable and as I visited the famous Manama Souk, the posh Adelya shopping and restaurant complex and the Bahrain World Trade Centre, there was visible optimism that Sheikh Salman would be the first man from this small island country (population of just 1,323,535) to be head of an International Sports body. Just like the Bahrain Grand Prix, they feel that Sheikh Salman’s election will enhance their country’s international image.
Sheikh Salman stressed that he would work for the upliftment of football in all countries and this was reflected in the questions I asked him about Indian and Asian football.
Q. Will you support India’s bid to stage the 2017 Sub-Junior World Cup.
A. It will be a matter of pride for us if India gets the rights to stage the 2017 Sub-junior World Cup as it will be seen as a step to improve and encourage football in Asia. The AFC will fully support the All India Football Federation’s (AIFF) bid to stage the 2017 Sub-Junior world Cup and will extend relevant assistance in organizing the event. (Earlier Asian nations to have staged this tournament are China- 1985, Japan-1993 and South Korea -2007).
Q. What steps will you take to upgrade South Asia’s premier international competition, the SAFF Cup?
A. The SAFF Cup is an important regional competition for Asian football like the Tigers Cup for south-east Asian countries. We will try and popularize this event with better marketing and publicity. After discussing with SAFF members, maybe it will be better to expand this competition and include some Central Asian nations like Turkmenistan and Kyrgstan. This will improve the scope of the tournament. Central Asia and South Asia must combine to improve their football standards.
Q. How can Indian football compete with the popularity of cricket?
A. I understand that cricket is the most popular sport in India and in several South Asian nations, but football is gaining popularity especially amongst the youth who like watching European football leagues and competitions. India must make its own programmes so that this interest can be harnessed and more young people play the game. We will extend all possible support to grassroots development of football and improving infrastructure in India.
Q. Your views on South Asian football.
A. Both India, Bangladesh and Maldives have good professional leagues, which can only get better. Nepal has a good youth development programme. Afghanistan is the most improved football nation in the South Asian region and we will extend them all support.
Expanding on the theme of improving Asian football standards, Sheikh Salman said, “Myanmar is running a good professional league and Laos is moving in the right direction. Our aim in AFC will be to help football in the diverse regions of the continent improve. We do not want to only concentrate on the Japan, South Korea and established powers in West Asia. We have to make sure our member countries use FIFA’s programmes and financial support properly. It is vital to improve our sport at grassroots level in all Asian countries. We have to develop our youth strategy to get more children playing football in an organized way which will require funding across Asia’s many member associations.”
Here are some of the other questions tackled by Sheikh Salman:
Q. Why does this election matter so much to you?
A. Football on our continent has reached a crossroads. Many Asian nations believe that we have to change. The last few years have been increasingly damaging for our sport. Our relationship with FIFA has suffered, perceptions of our sport have been setback and our reputation has been sullied. All this must change. If elected, I will serve all of Asia.
Q. What is the biggest threat to Asian football?
A. Betting and match fixing. About 70—80 percent of the cases that are known in world football emanate from our continent, so this is a problem which must be tackled on a priority basis. We will work with member associations across the continent to crack down on this disease together.
Q. How do you intend to tackle illegal activity like match fixing and corruption?
A. It will not be an easy task but we will have a zero-tolerance policy against bribery, corruption and match fixing. We have to clean up the game with strict measures. We have to work with outside agencies such as Interpol, the International Olympic committee (IOC), FIFA and others. Match fixing is an international problem and needs an international solution. We will apply all our resources to defeat the pernicious problem of match fixing.
Q. How will the guilty be punished?
A. I believe a severe approach is needed. I think nothing short of prison sentences for those found guilty of criminal behaviour and life bans from our sport is needed. We have got to be as severe as we can. We will extend support to all who fight against corruption in football.
Q. Your views on sponsorship and finance in Asian football?
A. We need to get a balance between professional business, commercial interests, TV rights, ticketing and our love for the game. Sponsorship is very important for the development of football, as is evident in Europe but we must get the balance right.
Q. How will you ensure proper distribution of revenue?
A. I will introduce full financial transparency, clarity in auditing and accounting and the International Financial Reporting Standards within the AFC. We want a system that’s fair, not a distribution system that depends on who you know. We will develop support programmes for those countries that have more need than others. Transparency is essential as it gives member associations full knowledge of what to expect from the AFC so they can develop the game across the region. A development programme has to be formed so that our large and diverse population can benefit by the rules of Fair Play and Respect both on and off the field of play.
Q. Your views on women’s football.
A. Like the FIFA President Sepp Blatter, I believe that the future is feminine. I am happy to say that the world champion in women’s football is Japan an Asian country. We will spread and develop women’s football in Asia. I want to make women’s football a priority and help countries overcome social barriers to take part in women’s football.