AFC elec­tion will be key

World Soccer - - From The Editor - Keir RADNEDGE

Heard the one about the Saudi, the Qatari and the Swiss? It’s not a joke. Not even a bad one. Just the tri­an­gu­la­tion of an in­ter­na­tional foot­ball power game which will be gath­er­ing mo­men­tum over the next six months as the world game stages three im­por­tant elec­tions next year.

While FIFA and UEFA look sure to re­turn Gianni In­fantino and Alek­sander Ce­ferin re­spec­tively, the Asian Foot­ball Con­fed­er­a­tion elec­tion is wide open.

In­fantino an­nounced at the Moscow congress on the eve of this year’s World Cup that he in­tended to stand for re-elec­tion in June. Last time around he promised to ramp up de­vel­op­ment cash and ex­pand the World Cup to 48 teams and he has ful­filled his prom­ise on both.

How­ever, like all elected politi­cians, In­fantino’s pop­u­lar­ity rat­ings have slipped. His per­sonal style and “Euro­peanis­ing” of FIFA’s se­nior staff has ir­ri­tated pock­ets of the game in Africa, as well as some in Europe. But how many other politi­cians can boast that they fol­lowed through on their man­i­festo? As a re­sult, no one will be able to mount a se­ri­ous chal­lenge next year.

As for UEFA, the Euro­pean fed­er­a­tion’s 55 mem­bers vote on Fe­bru­ary 7 and Ce­ferin has al­ready been nom­i­nated by nine FAs to main­tain his hold on the baton.

Now 51, Ce­ferin was a rel­a­tively un­known fig­ure out­side his na­tive Slove­nia be­fore com­ing to power. Said to be var­i­ously a pup­pet of the Rus­sians or the Turks or the Nordic na­tions, he has proved to be very much his own man – as all his ini­tial sup­port­ers have dis­cov­ered. The Turks, for ex­am­ple, are fu­ri­ous that, in their eyes, he “al­lowed” UEFA’s ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee to shun their Euro 2024 bid in favour of Ger­many.

Ce­ferin will run again on the ba­sis of a solid start to his ten­ure and his cause will not have been harmed by UEFA’s de­ci­sion, when the Na­tions League was al­ready un­der way, to step up the fi­nan­cial re­wards. This is, af­ter all, a tour­na­ment cre­ated for the mem­ber na­tions who put him in the pres­i­dency in the first place.

Mean­while in Asia, there is a fas­ci­nat­ing elec­toral bat­tle­ground ahead of a vote in April.

The last vacancy was cre­ated when Qatari busi­ness­man Mo­hammed Bin Ham­mam was banned for life from foot­ball by the FIFA ethics com­mit­tee.

Two years were needed for the dust to set­tle be­fore Bahrain’s Sheikh Sal­man Bin Ibrahim Al Khal­ifa won the AFC elec­tions in 2013 and then again in 2015. His suc­cess owed much to the sup­port of Kuwait’s Sheikh Ah­mad Al Fa­had Al Sabah, who wields enor­mous in­flu­ence through­out Asian sport via his roles as pres­i­dent of the Olympic Coun­cil of Asia, as pres­i­dent of the As­so­ci­a­tion of Na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tees and as head of Olympic Sol­i­dar­ity, which shares out the prof­its from the win­ter and sum­mer Games. Sheikh Ah­mad was then him­self duly elected by the AFC as a del­e­gate on the FIFA ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee/coun­cil.

Sheikh Sal­man, who has a home in Lon­don, has pre­ferred to lead the AFC from his Bahrain base rather than the con­fed­er­a­tion’s of­fi­cial HQ in Kuala Lumpur. He has also re­shaped the re­gional Asian fed­er­a­tions to shore up his vot­ing base, while si­mul­ta­ne­ously con­tra­ven­ing the FIFA line by killing off the role of AFC fe­male vice-pres­i­dent. He also per­suaded the AFC to ap­point him as its FIFA vice-pres­i­dent in place of Jor­dan’s Prince Ali Bin Hus­sein.

In 2016 Sheikh Sal­man pursed the FIFA pres­i­dency and at­tracted 88 votes be­fore be­ing de­feated in a sec­ond round of vot­ing by In­fantino.

But a year later, in April 2017, he was caught up in cor­rup­tion al­le­ga­tions – which he de­nied – raised by Richard Lai, the pres­i­dent of the Guam FA and a mem­ber of the FIFA au­dit and com­pli­ance com­mit­tee. Lai had been caught up in the United States’ FIFAGate in­ves­ti­ga­tion and tracked through his bank­ing records be­cause Guam is a US Ter­ri­tory.

Lai was duly banned from foot­ball by the FIFA ethics com­mit­tee and Sheikh Ah­mad, though never for­mally charged or ac­cused, ap­peared to take the hint. He quit all his foot­ball roles, in­clud­ing mem­ber­ship of the FIFA Coun­cil. Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, Sheikh Ah­mad’s time was also be­ing con­sumed by squab­bling within the Kuwaiti royal fam­ily which had spilled over into FIFA and IOC spheres.

The up­shot of all this was to leave Sheikh Sal­man ap­pear­ing sud­denly vul­ner­a­ble in the febrile world of Asian

In­fantino was at­tempt­ing to rush through a mys­te­ri­ous of­fer of $25bil­lion to sell con­trol of a Global Na­tions League and an ex­panded Club World Cup

sport and foot­ball pol­i­tics.

Into the whirlpool now jumped Saudi Ara­bia, which had been hith­erto pretty supine in world foot­ball. But all that was to change with the com­ing to power of con­tro­ver­sial Crown Prince, Mo­ham­mad Bin Sal­man.

In June 2017, Saudi Ara­bia or­gan­ised a coali­tion – which in­cludes the UAE, Egypt and Nige­ria – to launch an eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal at­tack on Qatar.

One weapon in the sport­ing arena was an in­ter­na­tional PR at­tack on Qatar’s 2022 World Cup host­ing; an­other was try­ing to seize con­trol of Jor­da­nian Prince Ali Bin Al Hus­sein’s West Asian Foot­ball Fed­er­a­tion. When Prince Ali re­sisted, the Saudis pres­sured Sheikh Sal­man into ap­prov­ing their cre­ation in Septem­ber of a South-West Asian Foot­ball Fed­er­a­tion (SWAFF).

With Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bhutan, In­dia, Iraq, Kuwait, Mal­dives, Nepal, Oman, Pak­istan, Saudi Ara­bia, Sri Lanka, UAE and Ye­men all in­volved, SWAFF has 14 AFC mem­bers and pro­vides a solid sup­port base from which Saudi pres­i­dent Adel Ez­zat im­me­di­ately an­nounced his in­ten­tion to chal­lenge Sheikh Sal­man for the AFC pres­i­dency.

Ez­zat is a fast-ris­ing new­comer who has the ap­proval of Turki Al Sheikh, the Saudi Gen­eral Sports Au­thor­ity chair­man who has the ear of the Crown Prince.

Just as the Crown Prince shared the close com­pany of In­fantino at Saudi Ara­bia’s open­ing game at the World Cup against Rus­sia, so Ez­zat shared the close com­pany of other FA leaders at the FIFA Best Awards gala in Lon­don.

In­ci­den­tally, his ap­pear­ance on the scene has not gone un­no­ticed in Doha, and Qatar could run their own can­di­date for the AFC pres­i­dency if only to en­sure a split in the Arab vote.

Ez­zat holds a chal­leng­ing brief. Saudi Ara­bia has been in the world’s head­lines for all the wrong rea­sons: the on­go­ing bomb­ing of Ye­men and mur­der of dis­si­dent jour­nal­ist Ja­mal Khashoggi to name but two. So a pri­or­ity is calm­ing con­cerns about the Saudi at­ti­tude to Qatar’s World Cup which has spilled over into the realm of TV sports fi­nance.

Anger has erupted abroad over the Saudi-based pi­rate satel­lite chan­nel Be­outQ, which has been broad­cast­ing World Cup and Cham­pi­ons League matches in the Mid­dle East and North Africa – the rights for which are held by Qatar’s BeIN Sports, who paid roy­ally for exclusive con­tracts.

If pi­rate broad­cast­ers can snatch foot­ball’s big­gest money-spin­ners for free then the fi­nan­cial foun­da­tion of the world­wide game will col­lapse with ground-shak­ing con­se­quences. And this is why rip­ples of con­cern are emerg­ing within FIFA and UEFA.

All of these is­sues con­verged just as In­fantino was at­tempt­ing to rush through FIFA Coun­cil a mys­te­ri­ous of­fer of $25bil­lion to sell con­trol of a Global Na­tions League and an ex­panded Club World Cup. Given the sums be­ing talked about, the sus­pi­cion of Saudi in­volve­ment prompted Europe’s FIFA Coun­cil mem­bers to raise the alarm and In­fantino was halted, at least tem­po­rar­ily.

The game is un­likely to have heard the last of all this in­trigue and vast sums – which is why In­fantino and Ce­ferin have par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est in understanding how the po­lit­i­cal winds are blow­ing in Asia.

Hope­ful...the South West Asian Foot­ball Fed­er­a­tion

Power...Sheikh Sal­man (left) with Gianni In­fantino

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