BANGKOK - Two weeks ahead of a crucial vote for a seat on the FIFA executive committee, Asian football has been polarised by merciless mud-slinging and accusations of intimidation, slander, vote-buying and conflicts of interest.
The two Arab candidates jostling for power in West Asia, Mohamed Bin Hammam of Qatar and Bahraini Shaikh Salman Bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, once claimed to be friends, but the stakes are high, the gloves off and things have started to turn ugly.
Neither candidate appears shy about washing dirty linen in public - nor of seeking to get world governing body FIFA involved in their bitter brawl for a place among football's top decision-makers.
Whatever the outcome of the May 8 polls, the skullduggery and dirty tricks campaigns can only harm the image of Asian football.
"It makes Asian football look amateurish and the people who run it spiteful and childish," said John Duerden, an Asian football writer for FourFourTwo magazine.
"It makes headlines for all the wrong reasons and reinforces stereotypes that Asia is full of corruption and bribery. If nothing else, the election shows that the atmosphere in Asia is poisonous at the moment."
For the charismatic Asian Football Confederation (AFC) chief Bin Hammam, the vote represents a first challenge to his 13-year tenure in the West Asia hotseat, during which supporters have hailed his moves to modernise the sport.
However, he is adamant his long-time rivals in East Asia have hatched a clandestine plot to topple him, using Al-Khalifa as a stooge to get him out.
Bin Hammam sees the polls as a vote of confidence in his leadership and has vowed to end his six-year reign as AFC president if defeated -- although not without a fight.
Al-Khalifa and his supporters accuse Bin Hammam of being a dictator and say he abused his power by suspending five federations that back the Bahraini, preventing them from voting in the polls.
FIFA has since overruled the suspensions and the five nations -- Laos, East Timor, Afghanistan, Mongolia and Kuwait -- will now be able to participate in the election.
He denies the charges, but in breaking from his normally cool, calm demeanour, the 59-year-old Qatari has done himself few favours by repeatedly lashing out at top officials he claims are bankrolling his opponent's campaign.
In a television interview, Bin Hammam last week accused the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) of offering grants to federations to vote against him, claims the OCA said were "baseless".
His biggest faux pas, however, came when he said he was ready to "cut the head off" South Korean football chief and FIFA vice-president Cho Chung-yun, who he says has a personal vendetta.
Bin Hammam quickly clarified the comment as a "misinterpreted Arab metaphor", but it has not stopped the Korean federation from lodging a strongly-worded complaint with FIFA.
He responded by telling Cho: "My performance is one thousand times better than your performance in FIFA.
"I am respected one thousand times more than you are. Asian football has been taken good care of by my presence," he said in comments made to broadcaster ESPN.
Al-Khalifa on Thursday said he was "dismayed and disappointed" at his opponent's claims of impropriety, insisting FIFA rules had been "fully upheld and abided by".
With tensions mounting, FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who relied heavily on the support of Bin Hammam in his own election campaigns, has called for a clean fight.
"Football is a universal sport based on the fundamental principles of discipline and respect for opponents... and the spirit of competitiveness and rivalry," he said in a statement.
"It is my duty to remind all members of the Asian football community of the importance of these values."
Takeo Goto, a Japanese football writer said the standoff reflected the differences and deep divisions within the 46-member Asian confederation.
"The culture between East and West Asia is totally different and each side wants to hold the power," he told Reuters.
"But this constant fighting is a big problem and will do nothing to help Asian football."comments