KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- One of world sport’s most powerful individuals, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, has quit football’s top table after being drawn into the 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.
Now the Kuwaiti, an influential supporter of IOC president Thomas Bach, has withdrawn his pursuit of FIFA Council re-election on the eve of next month’s congress.
The spark under an explosive development in world sport politics was evidence given in a Brooklyn court by Richard Lai, a member of the FIFA financial watchdog, its audit and compliance committee. Lai has admitted receiving around $1m in bribes from sports sources in Qatar and Kuwait.
On Saturday Sheikh Ahmad issued a statement “strongly” denying the allegations but today, amid speculation that he would become subject to a FIFA ethics investigation, he announced that he was quitting all football activities with immediate effect.
He said: “With regard to illegal payments to Richard Lai, I can only refer to my previous statement and vigorously deny all wrongdoing. I intend to work with all relevant authorities to disprove these, for me, totally surprising allegations.
“However I do not want these allegations to create divisions or distract attention from the upcoming AFC and FIFA Congresses. Therefore, after careful consideration, I have decided it is in the best interests of FIFA and the AFC for me to withdraw my candidacy for the FIFA Council and resign from my current football positions.
“I have been honoured to serve on the FIFA Council, FIFA Reform Committee and AFC for the last two years and I will continue to suppport the family of football once these allegations have been disproved.”
How Sheikh Ahmad intends to disprove Lai’s court-declared claims is not clear and this may, in the meantime, cast questions about his ongoing influence within Asian football.
The latest twist in the FIFAGate saga erupted on Thursday in a Brooklyn court with Lai’s admissions. 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. On Friday he was provisionally suspended by both FIFA ethics committee and the AFC disciplinary committee.
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 clearly fitted Sheikh Ahmad who is confronting delicate enough issues within the Olympic movement. He is at odds with some members of the Kuwaiti ruling family over domestic sports governance issues while he and Bach and other IOC leaders are seeking a way to bend their own rules and make a double award later this year of the 2024 and 2028 Games to Paris and Los Angeles.
Lai told the US court that 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.”
Lai 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 FA. This can only have been Qatari Mohamed bin Hammam who was seeking, in vain, to oust Sepp Blatter as FIFA president in the spring of 2011.
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.
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.