JAMES M DORSEY: This week’s signing of a memorandum of understanding between the Asian Football Confederation and its European counterpart UEFA potentially boosts an uphill battle by reformers to strengthen governance in the AFC, a deeply divided and troubled organization.

The agreement also bolsters efforts to weaken the influence within the Asian football body of its president, Mohammed Bin Hammam, the 63-year old Qatari who has been suspended for more than a year pending investigation of alleged bribery and corruption in the worst scandal in the history of world football. Bin Hammam has repeatedly denied the charges.

World football federation FIFA, which also suspended Bin Hammam as a member of its executive committee, announced last week that its independent investigator, former New York prosecutor Michael J. Garcia, had completed his enquiry into the charges.

Garcia was investigating allegations that Bin Hammam had bribed Caribbean football officials to enlist their support for his failed bid to challenge FIFA president Sepp Blatter in last year’s presidential election as well as the Qatari’s financial management of the AFC.

FIFA said that Garcia’s “final report, together with the investigation files, would be submitted to the adjudicatory chamber of the FIFA Ethics Committee for examination. On the same day, all of the documents were sent by Garcia to the chairman of the adjudicatory chamber, Hans-Joachim Eckert.”

Eckert had “deemed that the final report was complete and decided to proceed with adjudicatory proceedings in this case.”

‘Gold standard’

The AFC’s memorandum of understanding with UEFA is part of a reformist effort to put an end to what at best can be described as mismanagement within the Asian group that has been progressing on the Leninist principle of two steps forward, one step backwards.

In a statement, the AFC noted that UEFA, the regional association widely viewed as the gold standard in good governance in world football, would assist the Asian body in “marketing, legal and social responsibility matters apart from promotion of good governance principles in the game,” the issues it is struggling most with.

Opponents of Bin Hammam say the suspended football boss’s influence is greatest in those parts of the AFC that deal with marketing, finance and legal issues.

The AFC last month effectively fired its marketing director Satoshi Saito, who had been seconded for two years to it by the Japanese Football Association, one of Bin Hammam’s staunchest critics.

Saito, the sources said, had long been barred from meetings with the Asian group’s influential marketing contractor, the Singapore-based World Sports Group on the grounds that “the company holds all plenipotentiary rights to AFC’s marketing rights.”

The AFC statement quoted Acting President Zhang Jilong as saying the agreement with UEFA constituted a milestone in the history of Asian football: “It is a historical day for Asian football as we enter into the partnership with UEFA. They have set the standards in world football and we are happy to share their knowledge to develop the Asian game.”

Garcia’s investigation report was believed to include a damning internal audit of Bin Hammam’s financial management of the AFC, asserting that he had used an AFC sundry account as his personal account. The report also raised serious questions about the propriety of WSG’s $1bn master rights agreement negotiated by Bin Hammam.

Legal action

WSG has taken legal steps against this reporter in a bid to force him to disclose sources for his reporting, squash media reporting and intimidate sources.

The company has so far refrained from public comment on the audit that also raised questions about $14m in payments to Bin Hammam by one of its shareholders in the run-up to the signing of the agreement.

However, in an August 28 letter to this reporter that first threatened legal action, WSG legal counsel Stephanie McManus said that “PwC are incorrect and misconceived in suggesting that the MRA was undervalued. They have neither considered the terms of the contract correctly, the market, nor the circumstances in which it was negotiated.”

McManus did not comment on questions raised by the audit about the payments as well as the negotiating procedure and terms of the contract.

The sources said a deal forged in late November during an AFC executive committee meeting in Kuala Lumpur between Bin Hammam’s supporters and several AFC member association led by Pakistan Football Federation president Makhdoom Syed Faisal Saleh Hayat and opposed by reformists involved the holding of new presidential and executive committee elections in exchange for burying the report at least temporarily.

The sources said the deal effectively had little substance given that the AFC had surrendered control of the investigation of Bin Hammam as well as his relationship to WSG to Garcia prior to the executive committee meeting.

They said co-operation with UEFA strengthened efforts to clean-up and reform the AFC and would ultimately have to include an inquiry into WSG’s contractual relationship with the Asian body.

The audit conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers on behalf of the AFC urged the football body to seek legal advice related to Bin Hammam’s financial management of the group as well as to the possibility of renegotiating or cancelling the WSG contract.

The sources said an enquiry into the contract was unlikely before the AFC’s April elections though the question was not ‘if’ but ‘when’ it would occur.

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James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog

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