Hammam and Salman sparring for AFC seat

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You know it's serious when Sepp Blatter gets involved to protect the interests of fair play and the integrity of football.

Who would have imagined that there would be so much fuss over a seat on FIFA's Executive Committee? But the battle for West Asia's seat which will be settled by a vote at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Congress on May 8 is becoming increasingly bitter.

In one corner, you have the current occupant and the president of the AFC, Mohammad Bin Hammam. Challenging the Qatari is Sheikh Salman, the head of Bahrain's FA.

And it's not just the seat that is at stake. Bin Hammam has said he will treat the vote by the AFC's 46 member nations as a vote of confidence in his reign. If he loses to Salman, he has vowed to step down from the AFC too.

In the Qatari corner... Mohamed bin Hammam 

That's not all. Bin Hammam has accused fellow Executive Committee member and FIFA vice-president Chung Mong-joon as being the man pulling Salman's strings as the South Korean maneuvers towards his ultimate goal: the FIFA presidency.

"Chung and myself have never enjoyed a good relationship in the 20 years or so since I came to the AFC," Bin Hammam told me by telephone earlier this month.

"The second thing is that Chung is trying to contest for FIFA presidency and he knows that I am not going to support him and that is absolutely right. There is no way I am going to support him. This man knows nothing about football.

"One thing you know is that if Chung is your opponent then a fair campaign is not going to be there. We witnessed this in the campaign for 2002 for the FIFA presidency when Chung led the group against Blatter. This is his nature: arguments, issues, the man can't do fair play."

Strong words and perhaps a symptom of Bin Hammam's concern.

Many of the continents big boys, South Korea (Chung recently stepped down as Korean FA president) Japan and Saudi Arabia are supporting Salman, tired of - in their opinion - the Qatari's dictatorial rule of Asian football since he took the post six years ago.

Bin Hammam believes his record will win the day.

"In my opinion, I have turned the organisation into an organisation of international repute that serves all of Asia. The 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," he said.

The AFC chief seems stronger in South-East and Central Asia with West Asia divided between the two. Most of the Far East belongs to Salman. Both candidates are sure they have the votes in the bag.

"I wont talk about how many votes I have," Salman told me. "I have heard him say a couple of times that he has 30 votes, 35 votes. God knows how many, I dont think his numbers are accurate. You can't fool people, people have their contacts. People know who is supporting Bin Hammam and people know who is supporting me."

The campaign started with a bang in February when Bin Hammam did an interview with Qatari television.

"Sheikh Salman is not doing this alone," he said. "He is doing it on the instruction of others, especially people in the Korean federation."

Bin Hammam then caused a storm, both in Korea and out, with his comments that he would cut the head off his opponents. He said his remarks were taken out of context.

"It means to halt somebody's plans, nip them in the bud," Bin Hammam insisted. "It is like the English saying 'heads will roll'. It isn't meant literally."

Even so, the Korean FA officially complained to FIFA's ethics committee and Salman was less than happy with the claims that he was being bankrolled by Chung.

"Does he have the evidence?" Salman, who says he is not interested in becoming AFC chief if Bin Hammam steps down, asked me. "I already asked my attorney to file a complaint against those allegations. I dont think I need the financial support of Dr Chung or anybody else.

"To say that he is financing my campaign or whatever, I think these are false accusations and dangerous ones to be made by an AFC president. I am taking legal action against those allegations unless he has the proof to say that.

"I think that the personal remarks that we hear from him are not justifiable. If you want to concentrate on the campaign, focus on doing what is best for Asia. Let's not make it personal. There are people supporting Bin Hammam but you don't hear us mentioning their names. If a certain person or association wants to support a candidate, they have the right to do so."

And in the Bahraini corner... Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa 

There is still a lot of talking to be done, but for now I'll leave the last word to Sepp Blatter and his statement made last week to the two camps.

"Football is a universal sport based on the fundamental principles of discipline and respect for opponents and the laws of the game as well as on the spirit of competitiveness and rivalry, underpinned by the values of fair play and ethics.

"These principles and values must be applied not only on the field of play, but also in the administration and governance of football, particularly in the area of sports politics. And, of course, this includes elections to the governing bodies of football.

"As president of FIFA, it is my duty to remind all members of the Asian football community of the importance of these values in the run-up to the election scheduled for May 8 for the vacant Asian seat on the FIFA executive committee.

NEWS: Bin Hammam facing AFC competition
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NEWS: Asia chief to quit if he loses FIFA seat
NEWS: Bahraini bidding to unseat Bin Hammam 

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