AFC election will be key
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