By James M. Dorsey
The line-up of contenders for the presidency of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), promises everything but the wind of reform and change the group badly needs after almost two years of controversy and scandal that are still reverberating through the world of soccer.
With five days left to the March 3 deadline by which candidates have to announce themselves, the list of contenders so far reads like a cast of characters from a B-movie. In many ways, the line-up reflects a scandal-ridden world of questionable governance in global soccer in which officials project themselves as proponents of change, albeit change that does not fundamentally rock their comfortable boat.
The 46-member AFC is scheduled to elect its new president at an extraordinary congress on May 2 following the banning for life from involvement in professional soccer late last year by world soccer body FIFA of Mohammed Bin Hammam, the AFC’s most recent elected head.
Three of the five contenders - Yousef Al Serkal of the United Arab Emirates, Worawi Makdudi of Thailand and Hafez Al Medlej of Saudi Arabia - are all associates of Mr. Bin Hammam. The Qatari national was accused of multiple conflicts of interest and financial mismanagement of the AFC.
Mr. Makdudi has repeatedly been investigated for fraud and corruption. He denied last September fraud allegations made by a South Korean firm related to the cancelation of a multi-million-dollar broadcast rights deal. Earlier, he was accused by former English Football Association chairman Lord David Triesman of involvement in an alleged scheme to buy votes for England’s failed 2018 World Cup bid. Makdudi was cleared in 2011 of accusations that funds meant for the Thai soccer association to build facilities were instead spent on building assets on land he owned in Bangkok. Most recently, the Thai parliament investigated FIFA’s refusal to approve a newly futsal facility by his association.
Mr. Serkal's hiring last year of two former AFC employees associated with Mr. Bin Hammam's controversial financial management of the AFC holds out little promise for a real break with the past. As head of the AFC marketing committee, Mr. Al Medlej was not only a Bin Hammam associate but was also involved in a $1billion commercial rights agreement with Singapore-based World Sport Group (WSG) that was questioned by an internal audit of the group conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). PwC raised questions about the propriety of the negotiation of the agreement as well as its terms and advised the AFC to explore the possibility of renegotiating or even cancelling the agreement.
The fourth candidate, Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, head of the Bahrain Football Association, was narrowly defeated four years ago by Mr. Bin Hammam in his bid for a seat on the FIFA executive committee. World Football Insider characterised the bitter battle between the two men as one that was dominated by personal attacks, power abuse claims and cash bribes for votes.
Sheikh Salman’s candidacy is further clouded by the fact that he is a member of the Bahrain royal family that brutally suppressed a popular uprising in 2011 in which scores of sports people, including three members of the country’s national soccer team, were arrested for supporting the protests. Some, including soccer players, asserted that they were tortured in prison. In an interview with Associated Press this week, Sheikh Salman conceded that "people will talk about what happened."
Of the five candidates, Acting AFC chairman Zhang Jilong is the only one who has sought to introduce a degree of change within the AFC. Critics say Mr. Zhang was restricted in his ability to challenge Mr. Bin Hammam's influence even after he was first suspended in the early summer of 2011 because of the fact that he had headed the AFC's finance committee during the Qatari national's presidency.
Reformers within the AFC hope to turn the need for candidates to project themselves as agents of a clean break by demanding that they put forward a program that encapsules their vision for the group's future. The West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) that groups the AFC's Middle Eastern associations announced this week that it would vote for the candidate whose program best served soccer in the region.
In a response, Sheikh Salman has drafted a seven-point program entitled United for Change, according to World Football Insider, that pledges to fight match-fixing, doping and illegal betting; ensure full financial transparency by introducing international accounting standards and externally audit yearly reports; and guarantee equality in the distribution of AFC commercial revenues.
The reformers’ hope that the programs will allow them to hold whoever gets elected to their word could prove easier said than done. The new president will chair an existing executive committee whose majority has so far been more inclined to delay rather than introduce real change. One litmus test, with most candidates likely to promise financial transparency, will be whether the new president acts on the PwC recommendations or at least initiates a thorough investigation of the group's finances and commercial dealings.
That would involve revisiting the WSG contract that according to PwC may have been undervalued. PwC stopped short of drawing conclusions about the propriety of the agreement but suggested there were grounds for a review that include payments to Mr. Bin Hammam totaling $14 million by a WSG shareholder in the walk-up to the signing of the contract. Sources say pressure on the new president to follow through is compounded by continued inquiries into Mr. Bin Hammam’s management of the AFC by FIFA ethics investigator Michael J. Garcia.
WSG started a legal proceeeding last year against syndicated columnist and author of this blog, James M. Dorsey, in a bid to force him to reveal his sources. The bid is designed to squash reporting and intimidate sources. A Singapore court, in a landmark decision earlier this week, granted Mr. Dorsey the right to appeal an earlier court ruling instructing him to disclose sources.
WSG’s performance is already under scrutiny within the AFC with some of the group’s members insisting that it service a broader swath of Asian matches that are not necessarily among those that are commercially most lucrative. The push is part of a larger effort to broaden participation in the AFC’s Champions League to ensure that all members reap the benefits of commercialization.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.