Asian power battle reaches pivotal climax

BANGKOK - An ugly battle for control of Asian football will reach its climax this week with a vote that could bring a premature end to the reign of Asia's influential chief Mohamed Bin Hammam. The 46 member countries of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) will cast their votes at its annual Congress on Friday in a FIFA executive committee election that the Qatari sees as also a vote on his AFC presidency.

Once touted as a future FIFA president, Bin Hammam has vowed to step down from the AFC if defeated in this vote for the West Asia seat on the FIFA executive committee.

In his first challenge since taking a seat among FIFA's top decision makers 13 years ago, he is adamant he will prevail against Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, a Bahraini Sheikh backed by Bin Hammam's fiercest opponents.

"I am very confident going into the final stretch," Bin Hammam told Reuters in an e-mail interview.

"I have my record to run on, and I am proud of my record."

It has been a far from clean fight between the two candidates, with FIFA president Sepp Blatter forced to intervene with a plea for fair play.

The run-up to the polls has been fraught with mud-slinging and cries of foul play, with bitter bickering and accusations of dirty tricks, vote-buying and abuses of power.

Bin Hammam, who took over the AFC presidency in 2002, insists his opponent is nothing more than a puppet for his enemies in East Asia and the Gulf but admits campaigning had got out of hand.


"I think the campaign could have been cleaner," he said. "I only wish we ran solely on our records, in which case I believe there would be no contest."

Analysts and informed sources in Asian football expect the vote to be tight, with concerns about whether members will honour pledges to back certain candidates in the polls.

Football writers have said the skulduggery of the candidates and their backers has poisoned the Asian game and reinforced stereotypes of corruption and manipulation.

Bin Hammam is widely credited as a reformer of the Asian game but his critics accuse him of being a "dictator" with an authoritarian rule that has divided a region stretching 11 time zones.

The Qatari says the campaign against him is a personal vendetta and stands by his performance.

"Asia is now an influential force in world football and this happened only after I joined the FIFA executive committee," Bin Hammam said.

"Our opinions are taken seriously and we are no longer considered lightweight."

Al-Khalifa, a member of the Bahraini royal family, insists he does not want his opponent's AFC job, just his FIFA seat, and has vowed to improve transparency in the AFC's financial dealings, attract greater funding and help bring either the 2018 or 2022 World Cup finals to Asia.

"I want change for Asian football," he told reporters this week.

"I am more assured of my ability and my chances are better than my opponent in the battle.

"The voices of Asia must be heard because Asia is right now divided because of the growing unhappiness."