KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- The head of Asian football is so concerned his own FA will not back him for re-election that he is changing the rules.

Bahrain’s Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa wants to stand, at next April’s Asian Football Confederation Congress, for re-election to the presidency he has held since coming to power in 2013. He succeeded Mohamed bin Hammam after the Qatari businessman was banned for life for confusing AFC bank accounts with his own.

Sheikh Salman was re-elected in 2015 for a full four-year term in his own right and raised the status of the presidency by persuading the AFC to appoint him also as its vice-president of world federation FIFA; previously the roles had been separate. By happy coincidence for Sheikh Salman the change meant the removal from the AFC leadership chambers of Prince Ali bin Al Hussein, his progressive Jordanian rival.

The rivals: Saudis' Adel Ezzat and AFC supremo Sheikh Salman

A significant supporter of Sheikh Salman was Kuwait’s Olympic power-broker Sheikh Ahmad bin Fahad Al Sabah.

However, the balance of power is changing. Sheikh Salman failed in his bid for the FIFA presidency in 2016 and Sheikh Ahmad has stepped back amid royal family problems in Kuwait and to avoid FIFA issues over unproven allegations (which he denies) arising out of the United States authorities’ FIFAGate scandal investigation.

World Cup signal

Closer to home the AFC waters have been stirred by the rise in football politics of Saudi Arabia following the accession to domestic power of controversial Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. MBS, as he is known, made his sports focus clear by attending the Opening Match of the World Cup finals in Moscow where Saudi Arabia lost 5-0 to their Russian hosts.

Now Saudi Arabia is seeking a big victory off the pitch.

The Saudi FA has pressured Sheikh Salman’s AFC into approving its creation of a South-West Asian Football Federation. Significantly the 14 member associations include his own Bahrain FA. The 14 offer a solid electioneering foundation for Adel Ezzat, the SWAFF’s Saudi Arabian president.

Ezzat has announced his bid for the AFC presidency and a Qatari candidate is also a significant possibility. This all has Sheikh Salman worried because, if his own Bahrain FA has changed sides, it will not provide him with its essential nomination for re-election.

Hence Sheikh Salman is seeking to push a change to AFC statutes through its imminent ordinary congress on October 31.

A proposed change to Article 38 of AFC statutes would remove the need for a candidate to be nominated by his home FA. Support from at least three other federations would suffice.  Sheikh Salman has been assured he would then have no problem if Bahrain refuses its backing.

Statutes clash

That has upset a wide swath of national associations. They oppose not only the change in statutes but also oppose the idea of putting the full raft of changes to the vote as one package.

Sheikh Salman’s increasing band of critics also want congress, at the least, to vote separately on the proposed change to Article 38.

Events at congress will demonstrate how much support Saudi Arabia – and Ezzat – have acquired. He is standing with the full approval of powerful Saudi Sports Minister Turki Al-Sheikh. There is no truth in reports that former World Cup star Sami Al-Jaber might also run for the AFC presidency.

Ezzat was in London last month, meeting other senior federation directors at the FIFA Best Awards gala. His bid for AFC power represents a major challenge, particularly in the current political climate. But, clearly, the Saudis appear to have Sheikh Salman worried.