BANGKOK - Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Mohamed Bin Hammam is facing an unprecedented challenge to his reign after Bahrain's soccer chief launched a bid to unseat him from FIFA's executive committee.
Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim al Khalifa rejected suggestions his candidacy was part of a hostile move against the powerful Qatari, saying it was his ambition to become a decision-maker with world soccer's governing body.
"My interest in football is bigger than you can believe and I have a huge love of the game," Al Khalifa told Reuters in an interview. "I don't want this to be seen as a challenge to Bin Hammam.
"I believe in letting democracy in Asia take its course in a healthy environment and I want to put myself forward for this position," he said, adding he had no plans to run for the AFC presidency.
The challenge is the first for Bin Hammam since he won the FIFA seat in 1996 and well-placed sources say defeat would seriously undermine his position as AFC president, a post he has held since 2002.
Bin Hammam has recently been attacked by top soccer officials for his plans to move the AFC headquarters out of Kuala Lumpur, its home for 43 years.
Ties with close friend Sepp Blatter, the FIFA president, also appear to have strained in recent months.
In October, in a veiled criticism of Blatter's lengthy reign, Bin Hammam called for a limit on the number of terms served.
The head of FIFA, though, pulled rank on Bin Hammam after the AFC president said a New Zealand side should not play in Australia's A-league. Blatter said the team had his "blessing" and that it had nothing to do with the AFC.
In an apparent response to Al Khalifa's candidacy, the AFC on Tuesday proposed four new amendments to its statutes including one that would make the AFC president one of several FIFA vice-presidents.
The AFC congress will vote on that, and the four Asian places on the FIFA executive committee, in May. Al Khalifa can only contest Bin Hammam's West Asian seat.
"At the end of the day, it's choosing the right candidate, a responsible person," added Al Khalifa, a senior Bahraini government official educated in Britain.
"People will judge him (Bin Hammam) by what he did. If people want to vote for him, they can, or they can vote for me if they want change."