JAMES M DORSEY: FIFA vice-president and Asian Football Confederation executive committee member Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein – in an uncommon display of elegance and magnanimity in the rarefied world of world football as well as of Middle Eastern and North African leaders – has conceded defeat in a battle that is symptomatic of the sordid state of football governance.
Prince Ali’s concession came even before the AFC Congress in Sao Paolo on the eve of the World Cup in Brazil adopted a resolution that solidified the power base of AFC president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa and could next year terminate Prince Ali’s presence in the FIFA executive committee.
Taking the high ground, Prince Ali at the last minute supported a proposal by Sheikh Salman to combine the post of AFC president and FIFA vice president rather than maintain the vice presidency as an elected position in the realization that the Bahraini’s power grab was likely to succeed.
“In the spirit of Asian solidarity and harmony, I asked all member associations present at AFC Congress ahead of the vote to pass this amendment and to be united in this vote for the best of Asia. Our unity as a confederation is crucial at a time when we must work together to develop football in Asia; which I believe is our core mission. A mission I am committed to. It is far more important than positions, chairs and seats,” said Prince Ali in a statement.
Prince Ali who was elected three years ago had bitterly opposed the proposal prior to the AFC congress on the grounds that it sent the wrong signal at a time that world soccer needs demonstrations of greater transparency and accountability the most.
In endorsing the proposal at the last moment, Prince Ali hoped to demonstrate that soccer governance should be about the benefit of the sport rather than personal power, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa where it is highly politicized and ruling elites control the game in a bid to gain political benefit and prevent the pitch from becoming a platform for anti-government protest.
Prince Ali could nonetheless as yet decide to challenge Sheikh Salman in next year’s AFC presidential election or run for the FIFA executive seat that will become vacant as a result of the combination of the AFC presidency and the FIFA vice presidency.
At stake in an at times bitter battle between Prince Ali, a prominent reformer, and Sheikh Salman, a proponent of the existing order that has produced the worst crisis in the history of soccer, was the need for a radical revamp of the sport’s governance structures.
Proponents of reform, among whom Prince Ali figures prominently, have been fighting an uphill battle for the past four years. That battle has become more difficult with FIFA president Sepp Blatter whose image has been tarnished by multiple scandals, including fresh allegations of Qatari bribery in its successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup, seeking to weaken his critics within the group as he campaigns for a fourth term.
The election last year of Sheikh Salman to complete the term of disgraced AFC president Mohammed Bin Hammam, the Qatari national at the centre of the Qatar controversy and the FIFA scandals, says much about world soccer management’s attitude towards governance.
Three national team players in Sheikh Salman’s home country were three years ago denounced as traitors, detained and tortured for participating in anti-government demonstrations three years ago. The players have been released but Bahrain has since arrested two whole teams.
Sheikh Salman, a member of Bahrain’s ruling family and head of the Bahrain Football Association, has refused to comment on the plight of his players.
British prosecutors are weighing a petition by a Bahraini national for the arrest of a relative of Sheikh Salman’s, Prince Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa, the eldest son of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, commander of the Gulf island’s Royal Guard and head of the Bahrain Olympic Committee, on suspicion of involvement in the abuse of political prisoners.
Prince Nasser phoned into the show on state-run television that denounced the three national team players in a demonstration of support of what amounted to a kangaroo court.
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JAMES M DORSEY is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title
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