KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY —- Peter Velappan, who has died at 83, was responsible more than any other footballing pioneer, for turning Asian football from a fragmented muddle into a coherent entity.
This was a vastly impressive achievement because Asia is the one sporting continent which is horizontal and not vertical, like the Americas, Africa and Europe. Running Asian football means coordinating a cacophony of not only cultures but time zones and climate varieties.
Velappan made this his life’s work during his 29 years as general secretary of the Asian Football Confederation from 1978. He retired in 2007 just as the caravan of Middle Eastern sheikhs and their cohorts arrived to bend the great game’s architecture to their own political ends. The millionaires from Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia could not have seized the levers of power without Velappan’s creative construction.
Not that everyone appreciated his work at the time, building AFC coherence out of his own back yard in Malaysia. Various presidents have toyed with the idea of shifting headquarters out of Kuala Lumpur but none has yet succeeded.
That is a tribute to the happy coincidence that Velappan was Malaysian and appreciated that reaching both west and east extremes of Asian football meant working from a centre which was both geographical and political.
His demands on behalf of the Asian game did not always go down well in a FIFA whose world federation outlook was focused for many decades on the traditional powers of Europe and South America.
Admiration was grudgingly gained to the extent that Velappan was often considered a suitable possible replacement should Sepp Blatter ever have been levered out of the general secretary’s role during Joao Havelange’s era.
Tributes to Velappan were led by current AFC president Sheikh Salman Ebrahim Al Khalifa. He said: “Peter served Asian football with passion and professionalism… He deserves immense credit for everything that he achieved with the AFC and beyond.”
AFC general secretary Windsor John added: “Dato’ Peter set the standards to which everyone in Asian football aspires. He was dedicated to grassroots football and the development of the game in Asia. It has been an honour to follow in his footsteps.”
Velappan was born on October 1, 1935 in Negeri Sembilan on the western coast of the Malaysian peninsula. He studied in England at the Birmingham University and Loughborough College then and McGill University in Canada. He taught English and literature in Seremban, Negeri Sembilan, before joining the fledgling AFC in 1954.
Simultaneously, from 1963 to 1980, he was the assistant secretary of the Football Association of Malaysia, introducing professionalism; in 1972, he was the team manager who guided the national team to the 1972 Olympic Games football tournament in Munich.
In 1992 it was Velappan who persuaded suspiciously reluctant AFC directors to appoint a marketing partner which ultimately enabled it to capitalise effectively on football’s television and sponsorship explosion.
Not everything ran as smoothly. In 1999 Velappan organised a walkout of Asian delegates at 1999 Fifa Congress in Los Angeles in protest at Asia’s allocation of spots for the 2002 World Cup. He also clashed with various AFC presidents, confident that the support of a wide swath of national associations would keep him in place.
At the 2004 Asian Cup finals in Beijing, he was forced to apologise for criticising Chinese fans for bad manners and questioning whether Beijing should host the 2008 Olympics. Two years later he described Southeast Asian football leaders as unprofessional and ascribed some of the blame to FIFA for not training them properly.
The high point of Velappan’s career on the international stage was acting as co-ordination director of the organising committee of the politically sensitive co-hosting of the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea. The finals provided Velappan with his most personally sensitive moments in football: years later he revealed how, as a child brought up on a rubber plantation, he had witnessed the Japanese army sweeping across Malaya in 1941.
Velappan remained an influentially independent voice in the Asian game. Most notably he campaigned against AFC president Mohamed bin Hammam during the election for AFC’s seat on the FIFA executive committee in 2009, supporting Sheikh Salman.
Bin Hammam secured a narrow victory and found Velappan still a relentless opponent as he went on to pursue the FIFA presidency in 2011. Velappan publicly attacked Bin Hammam’s “undemocratic” approach to football governance but took no pleasure in the Qatari’s downfall and eventual suspension from the game for confusing his own bank accounts with those of the AFC.
Later Velappan observed: “He was a very good president in the first four years but after that, he was more interested in the power.”
Velappan, by contrast, while enjoying his own positions of power, put them to valuable use in the service of Asian football.
He leaves a widow, Pauline, and two daughters.
Peter Velappan: born October 1, 1935, died October 20, 2018.