JAMES M DORSEY: The line-up of contenders for the presidency of the Asian Football Confederation promises everything but the wind of reform and change the organisation needs badly after almost two years of controversy and scandal still reverberating through the world of football.
With four days left to the March 3 deadline for nominations, the list of contenders so far reads like a cast of characters from a B-movie.
In many ways, the line-up reflects a scandal-ridden world of questionable governance in global football in which officials project themselves as proponents of change, albeit change that does not fundamentally rock their comfortable boat.
The 46-member AFC is scheduled to elect its new president at an extraordinary congress on May 2 following the banning for life late last year by world federation FIFA of Mohammed Bin Hammam, the AFC’s most recent-elected head.
Three of the five contenders – Yousef Al Serkal of the United Arab Emirates, Worawi Makudi of Thailand and Hafez Al Medlej of Saudi Arabia — are all associates of Bin Hammam, the Qatari who was accused of multiple conflicts of interest and financial mismanagement of the AFC.
Makudi has been investigated repeatedly for fraud and corruption.
Last September he denied fraud allegations made by a South Korean firm related to the cancellation of a multi-million-dollar broadcast rights deal. Earlier, he was accused by former Football Association chairman Lord David Triesman of involvement in an alleged scheme to influence votes for England’s failed 2018 World Cup bid.
Makudi was cleared in 2011 of accusations that funds meant for the Thai football association to build facilities spent instead on building assets on land he owned in Bangkok. Most recently, the Thai parliament investigated FIFA’s refusal to approve a new futsal facility by his association.
Serkal’s hiring last year of two former AFC employees associated with Bin Hammam’s controversial – at best – financial management of the AFC holds out little promise for a real break with the past.
As head of the AFC marketing committee, Al Medlej was not only a Bin Hammam associate but also involved in a $1bn commercial rights agreement with Singapore-based World Sport Group that was questioned by an internal audit of the group conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers.
PwC raised questions about the propriety of the negotiation of the agreement as well as its terms and advised the AFC to explore the possibility of renegotiating or even cancelling the agreement.
The fourth candidate, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, head of the Bahrain Football Association, was defeated narrowly four years ago by Bin Hammam in his bid for a seat on the FIFA executive committee.
Sheikh Salman’s candidacy is clouded by the fact that he is a member of the Bahrain royal family which suppressed brutally a popular uprising in 2011 in which scores of sports people, including three members of the country’s national football team, were arrested for supporting the protests.
Move to change
Some, including football players, asserted that they were tortured in prison. In an interview with Associated Press this week, Sheikh Salman conceded that “people will talk about what happened.”
Of the five candidates, acting president Zhang Jilong is the only one who has sought to introduce a degree of change within the AFC.
Critics say Zhang was restricted in his ability to challenge Bin Hammam’s influence even after he was first suspended in the early summer of 2011 because of the fact that he had headed the AFC’s finance committee during the Qatari’s presidency.
Reformers within the AFC hope to turn the need for candidates to project themselves as agents of a clean break by demanding that they put forward a programme that encapsules their vision for the group’s future.
The West Asian Football Federation which groups the AFC’s Middle Eastern associations announced this week that it would vote for the candidate whose programme best served football in the region.
In response, Sheikh Salman has drafted a seven-point programme entitled United for Change which pledges to fight match-fixing, doping and illegal betting, ensure full financial transparency by introducing international accounting standards and externally audit yearly reports as well as guaranteeing equality in the distribution of AFC commercial revenues.
Reformers’ hope that such programmes will allow them to hold whoever becomes elected to their word could prove easier said than done.
The new president will chair an existing executive committee whose majority has so far been more inclined to delay rather than introduce real change.
One litmus test, with most candidates likely to promise financial transparency, will be whether the new president acts on the PwC recommendations or, at least, initiates a thorough investigation of the organisation’s finances and commercial dealings.
That would involve revisiting the WSG contract that according to PwC may have been undervalued. PwC stopped short of drawing conclusions about the propriety of the agreement but suggested there were grounds for a review that include payments to Bin Hammam totaling $14m by a WSG shareholder in the walk-up to the signing of the contract.
Sources say pressure on the new president to follow through is compounded by continued inquiries into Bin Hammam’s management of the AFC by FIFA ethics investigator Michael Garcia.
Last year WSG started legal proceeeding against syndicated columnist and author of this blog, James M. Dorsey, in a bid to force him to reveal his sources. The bid is designed to squash reporting and intimidate sources.
A Singapore court, in a landmark decision earlier this week, granted Dorsey the right to appeal an earlier court ruling instructing him to disclose sources.
WSG’s performance is already under scrutiny within the AFC with some of the group’s members insisting that it service a broader swath of Asian matches that are not necessarily among those that are commercially most lucrative.
The push is part of a larger effort to broaden participation in the AFC’s Champions League to ensure that all members reap the benefits of commercialisation.
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JAMES M DORSEY is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog
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