Bin Hammam facing AFC competition

BANGKOK - Once touted as a future FIFA president, Asia's charismatic but controversial soccer chief Mohamed Bin Hammam now finds himself scrambling for survival in his own back yard. The Qatari, whose deep pockets and big promises helped him to secure the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) presidency in 2002, is facing the first challenge to his reign in upcoming elections for the FIFA executive committee.

A little-known rival from the tiny Gulf state of Bahrain is determined to oust Bin Hammam from the committee seat he has held for 13 years.

Bahraini soccer federation chairman Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa says he has huge support in a region spanning 46 countries and nine time zones, where pressure against the 59-year-old Bin Hammam is mounting.

Bin Hammam is confident he will prevail, however, and has vowed to step down as AFC boss if unseated and wave goodbye to his dreams of taking world soccer's top job.

Al Khalifa believes more nations will back his "Asia for Change" campaign, and says Bin Hammam's days are numbered.

"Nineteen federations have promised their support (for me) and I can say easily there are at least eight or nine more who will join," he told Reuters on Tuesday.

"It's a good sign. They recognise there is a need for a change of management, to restore unity between all Asian nations, with fair treatment and equality, free from pressure."

FIERCE ENEMIES

Al Khalifa, however, is widely seen as a stooge for Bin Hammam's fiercest enemies, who accuse the Qatari of being arrogant and mismanaging AFC affairs.

Bin Hammam's opponents, largely from East Asia and disaffected Gulf states, have shown disdain for his attempts to change AFC statutes -- in an apparent move to protect his presidency -- and his efforts to move the body out of Kuala Lumpur, its home for 43 years.

Bin Hammam, who is credited with professionalising the Asian game with a wave of structural reforms and grassroots development projects, sees the May 8 FIFA poll as a vote of confidence on his leadership but is confident his record will ensure his survival.

"In my opinion, I have turned the organisation into an organisation of international repute that serves all of Asia," he told Reuters in a recent interview.

"AFC had no voice in the international arena before. We never had representatives at international level to fight for our causes...but Asia is now taken seriously."

Soccer analysts say Bin Hammam's opposition have been emboldened by a straining of ties with Sepp Blatter, the influential FIFA president. Blatter often spoke of his close relationship with the Qatari, his biggest supporter in his FIFA election campaign.

Alex Kunawicz, a columnist for the Abu Dhabi-based daily The National, said it was unlikely Al Khalifa was exaggerating his support but Bin Hammam should not be written off.

"No one would take him on if they hadn't been promised major backing, so this is an extra serious challenge," he said.

"But it's not certain what will happen. You never know what will take place before the vote or what deals will be made.

"Whatever happens, Bin Hammam will be remembered as the man who modernised and initiated real change in Asian football."


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