KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- Mohammed Khalfan Al Romaithi has promised to “clean up and unlock the potential of the world’s biggest football continent” in launching his bid to oust Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa as president of the Asian Football Confederation.

Al Romaithi, chairman of the General Authority for Sports in the UAE, stepped forward on behalf of one strand of the west Asian Arab states after the withdrawal from the contest of Adel Ezzat, former president of the football federation of Saudi Arabia.

Ezzat dropped out after his bid to block Sheikh Salman’s pursuit of re-election via a rules change was crushed by the AFC last October.

Al Romaithi . . . was a youth player for UAE's Al Ain

At a political level the UAE is a loyal ally of Saudi Arabia in the coalition which has imposed an economic and logistical boycott of Qatar. One weapon in the political campaign has targeting at the Qataris’ hosting of the 2022 World Cup finals.

The boycott, which has proved notably ineffective, has spilled over into the sports politics arena. Hence Al Romaithi is not the only challenger to Sheikh Salman but so is Qatar’s own Saoud Aziz Al-Mohannadi

Bahrain controversy

Sheikh Salman, notwithstanding the long-time controversy around his Bahraini background, remains overwhelming favourite to extend an AFC presidential reign which began in 2013 after a FIFA life ban ended the reign of Qatari Mohamed bin Hammam.

The AFC’s 47-strong membership votes on April 6 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on not only the presidency but candidates across a wide swath of senior roles.

Al Romaithi and his aides have been working busily behind the scenes ever since November but his formal campaign launch was staged in the opulent setting of the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

His campaign slogan is ‘Making Football Fair’ and he is promising “significant levels of new investment for every member association, increased participation at all levels of the game” and to introduce “genuine transparency and independence.”

These have been standard proposals for almost each and every football election candidate, not only in Asia but across the world.

Increased investment is clearly practicable from football’s ever-increasing media growth but “transparency and independence” is a pledge which draws only scepticism from the wider world.

‘Manifesto for change’

A specific indication of Al Romaithi’s commitment to what he describes as a “bold manifesto for change” will be judged on how he addresses the encouragement of women in football not only across Asia in general but closer to home in the Arab world.

He has promised that 25pc of the AFC’s hand-out to each member association should be ring-fenced for the development of women’s football but this, as world federation FIFA has discovered, is easier promised than enforced.

Al Romaithi, vice-president of the Local Organising Committee for the recent 2019 AFC Asian Cup, told his launch briefing: “I have seen first-hand how the power of football can change the lives of everyone for the better, but in Asia this power has been abused to the detriment of our people.

“Now is the time for change, now is the time for a new era, now is the time to make football fair for all.”

Campaign pledges

Specific promises included:

1, a $320 million ‘Fair Fund’ for the development of football across Asia;

2, a financial governance index to ensure all grants are means tested;

3, a $2m investment every year in every AFC MA;

4, a $1m investment every year in each regional federation (a total of $20m per term) to support regional development, competitions and administration;

5, insistence that every country’s national team should play a minimum of five matches per year; 

6, establishment of annual competitions for all age groups from U14-U23; and

7, setting up five regional AFC development offices, publishing detailed annual financial reports and create an independent office of budgetary responsibility.

Al Romaithi’s ultimate goal of “bringing Asian football into the 21st century” would be a first World Cup victory for one of the region’s countries.

He said: “We need to modernise our failing football system and create more opportunities to play the beautiful game. All member associations need to give youth a fair chance with more opportunities to play, learn and progress – unlocking their full potential.

‘Dark cloud’

“The AFC stands under a dark cloud, one shrouded in politics and poor governance. My manifesto is underpinned by my values, values that have been instilled in me through a lifetime of service to my country and my continent.

“Integrity, transparency, fairness and respect are the fundamental principles by which I live my life and they will become the bedrock of my presidency.”

Al Romaithi would also press for increased Asian representation in FIFA competitions. He will shortly embark on a three-week campaigning tour around Asian sports bodies .

FIFA president Gianni Infantino was in the region earlier this week – in Oman and Kuwait – amid continuing speculation over the possible expansion of the 2022 World Cup finals from 32 to 48 teams with the support of neighbouring states.

For all the fuss, this remains a doubtful option. Several of the beaten 2022 candidate nations are considering legal action if any proposal for venue amendment were to be set before FIFA Congress in June.