KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- One of world sport’s most powerful individuals, Kuwaiti Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, has been drawn into the ongoing FIFAGate corruption scandal.
Sheikh Ahmad, a former head of oil cartel OPEC, is president of both the Association of National Olympic Committees and the Olympic Council of Asia. He is also head of cash-dispensing Olympic Solidarity and, in 2015, added to his power portfolio on being elected to world football’s top table as a member of the FIFA Council.
Apart from all that the Sheikh was also – and has remained – an influential supporter of Thomas Bach when the German won the presidency of the International Olympic Committee in 2013.
He “strongly denies” the claims arising from evidence given in a Brooklyn court by Richard Lai, a member of the FIFA financial watchdog, its audit and compliance committee.
An OCA statement said: “Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah is aware of the media speculations concerning alleged payments made to Richard Lai who is being investigated by US authorities for tax and other alleged violations.
“Sheikh Ahmad is very surprised by such allegations and strongly denies any wrongdoing.
“He will vigorously defend his integrity and reputation and that of any organisation that he represents in any relevant legal review.”
Lai has admitted accepting around $1 m in bribes from a the disgraced former Asian confederation president Mohamed Bin Hammam and from a member of the Kuwait Football Association and Olympic Council of Asia.
A US citizen and president of the Guam Football Association, Lai is a former member of the Asian confederation executive committee and was a member of its marketing committee until being suspended on Friday by both FIFA and the AFC.
The indictment against him named among his co-conspirators someone who was “at various times” a “high-ranking official of FIFA, the Kuwait Football Association, and the Olympic Council of Asia.”
Such a description appeared to fit Sheikh Ahmad who is widely accepted within the Olympic movement as wielding wide-ranging influence including in football body elections in the Asian region.
These are delicate enough times already without such distractions for senior Olympic leaders; they are seeking a way to award the 2024 and 2028 Games to Paris and Los Angeles without the 2028 award being considered a losers’ consolation prize.
‘Faction of officials’
In a Brooklyn court on Thursday, Lai said he had received more than $850,000 in bribes between 2009 and 2014 “from a faction of soccer officials in the AFC region.”
An indictment statement from the US DoJ added: “Lai received those bribes in exchange for using his influence as a soccer official to advance the interests of the faction that bribed him, including by helping officials in that faction identify other officials in the AFC to whom they should offer bribes. The goal of this scheme was for the faction to gain control of the AFC and influence FIFA.”
Lai said the money was disguised as payments to hire a coach for Guam but that the cash had been deposited in his personal account. He regularly asked for more money “for coaches,” which came in the form of wire transfers.
In court he added: “The term ‘coach’ was code for payment, for me personally. I never used those funds to pay for a coach for Guam … I kept it for myself and never told anyone.”
He also admitted taking bribes amounting to $100,000 in 2011 from a candidate for the FIFA presidency in return for his support and vote as president of the Guam Football Association.
Lai never disclosed receiving $100,000 — which came from an account in Qatar and was deposited to his bank in the Philippines — despite knowing that the candidate was being investigated by FIFA at the time.
This candidate can only have been Qatari Mohamed bin Hammam who was seeking to oust Sepp Blatter as FIFA president in the spring of 2011.
Bin Hammam was suspended shortly before the vote over cash payments made to delegates from some Caribbean associations after a campaign conference in Port of Spain, Trinidad.
Lai has pleaded guilty to two counts of wire fraud conspiracy and one of failing to disclose foreign bank accounts and has agreed to pay $1.1 m in fines and forfeiture.
On this basis it must be considered that, in seeking to defray the penalties and sentence, he may have sought to spread blame as far and wide as he could.
He is the second member of FIFA’s audit and compliance committee facing conviction for corruption after Canover Watson, of the Cayman Islands, who was jailed for seven years there in February 2016.