Divided Asia gears up for crucial election

KUALA LUMPUR - Asia's football chiefs go to the polls on Friday against a backdrop of acrimony, distrust and bitter brawling which has plunged the football-mad region into uncharted waters. Although only a routine election for a seat on the FIFA executive committee, the vote could decide who will hold the power in Asia and bring a premature end to the reign of the region's football chief Mohamed Bin Hammam. "We are now facing the most crucial stage in the history of Asian football," FIFA vice-president Chung Mong-joon (pictured) told reporters on Thursday at the annual congress of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). "This historic moment presents a critical challenge to us." Bin Hammam faces his first challenge since taking the West Asia seat on the FIFA executive committee in 1996. The charismatic Qatari, who turns 60 on Friday, sees the polls as a vote on his leadership and has vowed to quit as AFC boss if defeated. He faces newcomer Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, a Bahraini royal family member and former friend of Bin Hammam, who accuses his opponent of being an authoritarian who has divided Asian football. "I'm confident I will have success in this election," he told Reuters. "We need to restore democracy in our game and bring all our members together again, as one." DIRTY TRICKS The respective campaigns have been dogged by allegations of dirty tricks, intimidation and corruption, with Bin Hammam accusing his opponent of being a stooge for his long-time foes in East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Gulf. On the eve of the polls, Chung, a South Korean lawmaker and automobiles tycoon, reaffirmed his backing for Sheikh Salman and said Bin Hammam was showing signs of mental instability and acting like a mafia boss. "It looks like Mr Hammam is suffering from mental problems," Chung told stunned reporters. "I want to advise him to consider going to hospital...he is acting like the head of a crime organisation." Bin Hammam was positive that the vote would go ahead without the tension and skulduggery that has so far plagued the campaigns. "We will show the world how civilised we are," he told congress delegates on Thursday. "We will conduct our business as one family. Although there are differences, we are united and determined to develop football and there will be victory for all of our football family." The 46 members of the AFC, which stretches 11 time zones, will first vote on whether Kuwait, whose federation is staunchly against Bin Hammam, should be barred from voting in the polls. FIFA has said the AFC has "no legal base" to suspend the Gulf state but the Asian body maintains it had breached rules in forming its football board. Analysts say the foul play and personal attacks were an embarrassment to Asian football and will only hamper its progress on the world stage. "It's rare to see such open civil war in a confederation, but its a reflection of how divided and diverse the AFC is," Gavin Hamilton, editor of World Soccer magazine, told Reuters. "It's hard to see things improving, especially with five Asian countries bidding for the 2022 World Cup."