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Newly-elected Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa made a rallying call for unity to drive the Asian game forward as he hit back at ongoing allegations over human rights abuses in his home country of Bahrain.

Sheikh Salman on Thursday secured a resounding victory in the AFC presidential elections, landing the top job in Asian football as well as a place on FIFA’s powerful Executive Committee. The Bahrain Football Association (BFA) president received 33 of the 46 votes from AFC member associations to comprehensively head off the challenge of Thailand’s Worawi Makudi (seven votes) and Yousuf Al Serkal of the UAE (six votes). However, his election campaign came in the face of pressure from human rights groups concerning the crushing of a pro-democracy uprising in Bahrain two years ago. Sheikh Salman was accused of standing by as players were persecuted for protesting, but he refuted these allegations in his first news conference as AFC president. He said: “I have just one question – you talk about allegations, but the question is, do you have the proof? Somebody talks about the government, but I don’t think this is our business in football. We are football people and if anybody has the proof that the Bahrain Football Association has violated the statutes of FIFA or AFC then present it, otherwise we move on.”

Sheikh Salman succeeds Zhang Jilong, who has served as acting president since May 2011 following the downfall of previous chief Mohamed bin Hammam. Bin Hammam’s subsequent life ban from world football had left a power vacuum, and a certain state of uncertainty, in the Asian game, but Sheikh Salman expressed his intention to plough ahead with reform efforts until his term expires at the next AFC Congress in 2015. “It’s our duty together not only to look at what our challenges are and how to solve them but more importantly to look ahead to our future goals,” he said. “We need be united, to bring everyone in one path, to look ahead to our goals, to achieve our targets, to get as many things done as possible especially by the year 2015. There are many great things that can be done in two years’ time. We should expect some changes and we’d like to see smooth transition to our goals and understanding between all member associations.” Sheikh Salman cited match-fixing as one of his key concerns, adding that the AFC needs support from stakeholders outside football to aid its reform efforts. He added: “We should look carefully at our challenges such as match fixing which is a disease. We have zero tolerance to match fixing and corruption practices and we need to make full use of all our tools to fight this phenomenon. This problem should not only be tackled from the football side only, but also we need good policing and support from the governments. And we should try to create mechanisms to tackle this issue in Asia.”

Meanwhile, Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee general secretary Hassan al-Thawadi is remaining philosophical over his defeat in the race for the available place on the FIFA ExCo. Sheikh Salman received 28 votes, 10 more than Al-Thawadi, the only other candidate for the position. “It’s not a blow at all,” said Al-Thawadi, according to Reuters. “It has reconfirmed my passion for football, reconfirmed my commitment to football and the potential football has, it has reconfirmed, also, my vision of how football can help in unleashing potential. I don’t know what the future holds for me but I know my passion and commitment to football is as strong as ever and I will be working with all my colleagues on delivering the vision I have.” Another slot on the ExCo could soon become available with Sri Lanka’s Vernon Manilal Fernando this week banned for eight years from all football activity by FIFA.

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