JAMES M DORSEY in AMMAN: FIFA’s track record of policing its insistence that sports and politics are separate has been patchy at best.

A look at the Middle Eastern and North African members of its executive committee and constituent regional associations shows that it allows them to be populated by a number of autocratic pawns and members of ruling families more interested in maintaining the status quo than the interests of the sport and the ideals to which they, at best, pay lip service.

The struggle for who represents Asia in the FIFA executive committee is a case in point.

Prince Ali and Sheikh Salman: contrasting agendas?

Asian Football Confederation president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, who also heads the Bahrain Football Association, was last year elected to clean up the scandal-ridden body after its former president, Mohammed Bin Hammam, was banned for life from involvement in football on grounds of alleged corruption.

Governance issue

Instead Sheikh Salman, a member of Bahrain’s ruling family, has spent his first year in office seeking to expand his power base at the expense of football governance’s few reformers, among whom first and foremost is Jordan’s Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, whom Sheikh Salman – in an undemocratic manoeuvre rather than a free and fair election – is seeking to replace as FIFA vice-president.

Prince Ali is one of the few international soccer executives who has used his position for the greater good of the game.

Sheikh Salman’s ascendancy is telling in and of itself. Few international organisations would have elected as president a man who has refused to say a word about the public denunciation, detention and torture on his watch of national team players because of their participation in mass anti-government protests and the politically motivated incarceration of two football teams.

Sheikh Salman’s silence is particularly telling at a time that controversy over labour conditions in Qatar and anti-FIFA protests in Brazil have put human and social rights on world soccer’s agenda.

Hakan Sukur, an all-time Turkish soccer star-turned-controversial Islamist politician, recently highlighted the pervasiveness, even in the Middle East and North Africa’s few pluralistic, democratic societies, of the inextricable intertwining of politics in footall and the laxity of policing by FIFA and its regional associations of their insistence in upholding the fiction that sports and politics are separate.

In a recent interview Sukur, a supporter of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s Islamist rival, Fethullalh Gulen- a self-exiled cleric and leader of one of the world’s largest Islamist movements- disclosed that he had consulted Erdogan on his plans to run for the presidency of Turkish football federation.

“It was normal to receive instructions behind the curtain from Erdogan about every decision,” Sukur told the pro-Gulen Zaman newspaper. “Unfortunately, at the time, we did not perceive it as a result of authoritarianism, but simply Erdogan’s interest in sport.”

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JAMES M DORSEY is a Senior Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title

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