By Ash Hashim
AS the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) prepares to elect a new president at the extraordinary congress in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday, it is worth noting that this may very well be a pivotal moment for Asian football.
Amidst an ongoing human rights scandal in Bahrain, accusations of vote rigging and a questionable lack of media freedom, the quest for the AFC presidency has cooked up the wrong kind of storm.
The controversial Mohammad Bin Hammam, who was slapped with a lifetime ban by FIFA for breaching ethical laws and offering bribes in exchange for votes, was forced to vacate his post as AFC President in 2011.
With such volatile circumstances leading up to the election and recent incidents in Asia involving match fixing and corruption, it was always going to be controversial and even a little awkward.
The four candidates vying to become the next AFC president are Thailand’s Worawi Makudi, Bahrain’s Shaikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa, the UAE’s Yousuf Al Serkal (UAE) and Saudi Arabia’s Dr. Hafez Ibrahim Al Medlej.
All accounts indicate that this is very much a race dictated by power relations, with Dr Hafez expected to withdraw his candidacy in support of either Sheikh Salman or Al Serkal within the next few days.
The plot thickens here, however, as Worawi, Al Serkal and Al Medlej are – coincidentally - personal friends of Bin Hammam’s.
All three have been quick to assert that their “personal” and “professional” lives are completely unrelated, a statement that does very little to convince the football cynic.
Shaikh Salman, who is the only candidate not friends with the ousted Qatari, has not been spared from pre-election smear campaigns either.
He has been repeatedly targeted by Bahraini Human Rights groups, who wrote to FIFA President Sepp Blatter last Friday, demanding for him to be expelled from the race.
The Sheikh – the current President of the Bahrain Football Federation – had been accused of participating in the abuse of 32 players, officials and coaches who participated in democracy clashes during the Arab Spring of 2011.
In an interview at his office in the capital of Manama one week ago, Sheikh Salman told this reporter that he was tired of the negativity surrounding his campaign.
“Let’s keep it positive and have a good campaign,” he said, adding that his opponents were deliberately resorting to tricks against him.
When his opponent from the UAE, Al Serkal, was later asked about the allegations of vote-buying among the candidates, he remarked: “We don’t see this happening anywhere else in the world. This is only happening in Asia.”
Al-Serkal may be right. The existing “soap opera” of the AFC elections has been admittedly fun to watch, but it greatly deflects from its original purpose, which is to find a leader who can urgently address the issues in Asian football right now.
Given the recent surge in cases involving corruption, bribery and match fixing within the region, fans can be forgiven for thinking that Asian football has been drowning in a pile of pessimism.
With the stain from the match-fixing scandal, Sheikh Salman was quick to point out in his manifesto that it was an “international issue” which required an international solution.
Meanwhile, Thai candidate Morawi’s five-point plan revealed no indication of measures to address the problem while UAE’s Al-Serkal’s “whistle-blower” approach aimed to introduce transparency within the organisation.
However, evidence proves that the root of match fixing is disappointingly Asian, with a criminal syndicate in Singapore fixing more than a hundred international games in February.
The fact is that the Asian continent is gravely in need of a revolutionist, a man or woman who can take the bull by its horns and address the key issues which have plagued the continent.
The new AFC president – who is expected to serve until 2015, when a new term begins – needs to be a game-changer of the sport, a leader with a refreshing slate that will revamp the flavour of Asian football.
For the AFC, the popular phrase, ‘Out with the Old, In With The New’, could not be more pertinent.
Unlike UEFA, which is presided over by the eccentric and controversial former French international, Michel Platini, it is important to understand that the culture of football in Europe is poles apart from Asia.
Platini was sworn in as Uefa President in 2007 after his campaign promised “solidarity and universality”.
Similarly, the idea of universality preached by Platini may sound appealing but is simply unfeasible for Asia. Although we are experiencing globalisation, the nations within the Asian continent are less homogenous and increasingly diversified.
While it may be dismaying that the AFC has yet to conceptualise a fundamental blueprint for Asian football since its inception in 1958, it is equally important to note that coming up with a unified solution for 47 different states is a steep challenge.
And while all four AFC candidates acknowledged the importance of unifying all member associations, only Yousuf Al-Serkal and Sheikh Salman came close to recognising the core differences that separate each country.
“I will focus on my campaign, which is to cater to the needs of each country in Asia individually. I believe every country is different, in terms of its structure, the way the local FA is being run and the facilities at their disposal,” said Sheikh Salman.
ASIAN FAN CULTURE
The other challenge now is picking a President who will be able to bridge the gap between the teams in the four AFC members association (the Middle East, South Asia, Asean and East Asia) while activating fans across the region.
To put in perspective, the nations of West Asia (the Middle East and Gulf states) and East (Mongolia) may not necessarily share the same ideals and cultural practises as nations such as Singapore or Australia.
In addition, many countries in the Gulf have barely enjoyed the fruits of globalisation and nations such as Syria and Egypt are closed to being marginalised as a result of the wars and the Arab Spring.
The hijab rule, which allows Muslim women to play football and wear the headscarf, indicates that culture is still very much pivotal in the growth of Asian football, and while the most hardcore idealists in football would argue that football is spoken in “one language”, the same simply cannot be vouched for the Asian continent.
As such, AFC faces its own challenge in unifying fans from across the region, as fan habits continue to evolve according to the times.
While the Gulf Cup and Asean Cup are relatively successful within their vicinities, the same cannot be said for the AFC Champions League – which as Sheikh Salman admitted – “would be improved” if he were to win the election.
Sadly, Asian fans are struggling to identify with teams closer to their backyards, as opposed to the Manchester United and Barcelona they watch on TV – and the AFC, as an autonomous football body – needs to recognise this.
Despite investments being made in our region and a surge in interest from EPL teams who recognise the continent’s potential in “selling jerseys”, very few in the region are aware that Ulsan Hyundai were their Asian Champions League heroes, as opposed to Chelsea whose success was in Europe.
As it stands, whether it is Worawi, Sheikh Salman, Al-Serkal or Al-Medlej who picks up the presidency on Thursday, the election is of little impact to many Asian football fans.
Tragically, for a sport that could only sustain itself with the passion of its fans, this should not be the case.
|Ash Hashim is the editor, journalist and personality known as Futbolita (“The Female Football Voice”). She has interviewed many of the world’s top players and covers football from a uniquely cultural, fun and feminine perspective.|