Who will be the next AFC President?
It is over and now it begins. Mohamed Bin Hammam has resigned from football but was banned by FIFA anyway. The whole episode– from the Qatari’s initial suspension in May 2011 –has been a messy marathon of an affair. Nobody emerges with any credit.
Bin Hammam was the president of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) for nine years before deciding to challenge Sepp Blatter for the FIFA top job in March 2011. As the election campaign approached its conclusion, he was accused of vote-buying in the Caribbean. The FIFA Ethics Committee found him guilty and issued a life ban.
To cut a long story short, Bin Hamman always insisted on his innocence, had his name cleared by the Court of Arbitration for Sports in July 2012, but by that time had been banned by both FIFA and AFC as investigations took place into alleged financial irregularities during his time as Asian supremo.
It is an ending of sorts, if not a very satisfactory one and while it is not a clean break -one of the main fault lines in the AFC runs between Bin Hammam’s supporters and opponents – but it does allow the AFC to move forward. And it is heading, uncertainly, towards an election for a new president, likely to be held in April 2013. In the meantime, each candidate will strive to show that he alone can unite a divided confederation, show the wider football and business worlds that Asian football is clean and improve standards on and off the pitch and that’s just the public battle. Lobbying for support behind closed doors can get frantic.
Acting president Zhang Jilong has been happy for the Bin Hammam affair to drag on for as long as possible in the belief that it increases influence and helps to create a perception of steady statesmanship in the wake of stormy weather. Painting yourself as the natural boss at a time when some want change can be a risky strategy and create opportunities for challengers.
Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, the head of Bahrain’s FA, has been laying plans ever since Bin Hammam was suspended, even before. This is a man who challenged the Qatari for his seat on FIFA’s Executive Committee in a bitter contest in 2009, and came mighty close to winning. While he was something of a protest candidate in tumultuous times for Asian football (though tumultuous has since become the norm) Salman impressed with a campaign that was cool-headed.
The problem for the Manchester United fan is that his family is also the ruling family of Bahrain. This is not in itself a problem but the government suppressed the Arab Spring movement in the tiny country in a brutal manner in 2011 and also arrested, imprisoned and allegedly tortured a number of experienced national team players. The sectarian unrest is ongoing as is the potential for embarrassment for the AFC. One high-ranking member said recently that it would create a potential problem that the confederation just doesn’t need. Security forces killing protestors in Manama at the say-so of members of the family of the AFC president? Arresting and torturing professional football players? Even hardened AFC administrators shift uncomfortably in their seats at such a prospect.
Yousef Al Serkel has also been quite open about his intention to stand for some time. An ally of Bin Hammam – it remains to be seen if that works for or against him-the chief of the UAE FA is a safer choice than Salman. If he can unite most of West Asia behind him, his challenge will be formidable though he still needs to reach out beyond his own region. He insists that he can do so.
A fourth runner could be Kozo Tashima. The outsider from Japan is a nice guy, perhaps too nice for the current atmosphere in the AFC and, at the moment, lacks the continental-wide clout to take the election by the scruff of the neck. It is far from certain that he would be able to persuade even his own backyard of East Asia to back him with Zhang in the race. His campaign would have to be spectacular. The feeling is that with the presidency limited to two terms and eight years, Tashima would be better suited to being the next leader but one.
Zhang is a smooth operator. He is in the hotseat at the moment and that helps put him in the driving seat but he is not going to be racing ahead of the field anytime soon. The race is just warming up and there are going to be many twists and turns on the road to AFC House in Kuala Lumpur.
John Duerden has been called ‘The Voice of Asian Football’ by the BBC and writes for ESPN, New York Times, The Guardian, Associated Press, Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports, 442 and various Asian media.