Friday, May 08, 2009

Abuse, conspiracy theories and (alleged) vote-buying: the Asian football family

From The Telegraph

If your appetite for abuse, conspiracy theories, alleged corruption and general misbehaviour has not been sated by the aftermath of Chelsea's elimination from the Champions League, then the Asian Football Confederation's annual congress could be be just the ticket.

The AFC is meeting this week to choose West Asia's representative on Fifa's executive committee, an event that would usually go unnoticed almost everywhere. Sporting elections are not usually showstoppers, with most of the backstabbing being done behind closed doors allowing the victor to be anointed by an apparently harmonious electorate.

Not so in the AFC, where the race for a seat at world football's highest table, to be decided early on Friday UK-time, has turned vicious and personal, with allegations of mental illness, vote-buying and hints of violence flying.

The election matters because if the incumbent, Mohamed bin Hammam of Qatar, is defeated he has promised to stand down as president of the AFC. As a close ally of Sepp Blatter that will alter the balance of power within Fifa.

It will also have a bearing on the fate of England’s bid for the 2018 World Cup, which will be decided by the 24 members of the executive committee. Bid chief executive Andy Anson is in Kuala Lumpur to spread the word, but the trip could become a crash course in just how heated football politics can get.

Bin Hammam is being opposed by Bahrain's Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, who has the support of major regional players including South Korean tycoon Chung Mong-joon, owner of Hyundai and himself a Fifa executive committee member.

Earlier today Chung delivered a personal attack on Bin Hammam notable for its complete absence of diplomacy. "I am afraid that Mr. Hammam may be a sick person who needs to be at a hospital rather than at FIFA," he told reporters in KL. "It looks like Mr. Hammam is suffering from mental problems. I want to advise him to consider going to hospital.”

Chung went on to allege that that Bin Hammam was "acting like a head of a crime organisation" and that Asian soccer now suffered from a serious lack of transparency, democracy and rule of law.

The attack may have been motivated by Bin Hammam's earlier appearance on television using a metaphor alluding to cutting off Chung's limbs and his head. Gloriously, he later insisted that his comments had been taken out of context.

Sheikh Salman’s campaign meanwhile has been accused of using football development grants to buy votes, an allegation being investigated by Fifa’s ethics committee. Bin Hammam's camp also suspect a conspiracy among Gulf crown princes to unseat him, and the whole mess has moved Sepp Blatter, without a hint of irony, to call for fair play in the election.

Ultimately the animus between Chung and Bin Hammam may have more than a little to do with their shared ambition to succeed Blatter, with Chung spying an opportunity to unseat a rival for the top job when it becomes available.

For now the election for the executive committee seat, remains very tight, though Bin Hammam’s camp is confident that they have enough support to get over the line.

Blatter’s patronage will as ever be crucial. Bin Hammam has been a close ally of the Fifa president, bankrolling his 1998 election and helping deliver crucial AFC votes in 2002. Blatter’s dislike of Chung is also common knowledge so he can be expected to back the incumbent, even if he does covet his job.

England 2018 meanwhile can look forward to courting the winner.