Hariss deserves better than a tainted AFC Cup final

Singapore’s star will rightly make history, but Asian football has let everyone down once again, argues Neil Humphreys.

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Hariss Harun finds himself with an asterisk next to his name he neither wants nor deserves.  On October 31, he will become the first Singaporean to play in the AFC Cup Final, but the tarnished showpiece comes with a whopping caveat.

The 24-year-old midfielder prepares for an occasion decided not on a pitch, but in a distant meeting filled with FIFA suits. Once again, the footballer and the fan must pay for the entrenched negligence, or incompetence, or indifference – take your pick – that continues to stain the Asian game.

Hariss’ Johor Darul Ta'zim (JDT) take on Istiklol for the prestigious trophy only because their semi-final opponents were kicked out before the second leg.

With FIFA’s pot taking the opportunity to call the Asian kettle black, the governing body has suspended the Kuwait Football Association (KFA) from all football activities, including the AFC Cup.

After the first leg of the semi-final, Kuwaiti powerhouses Al-Qadsia and Al-Kuwait were leading JDT and Istiklol 3-1 and 4-0 respectively. A farcical fissure again threatens to erupt across Asian football’s unstable foundations.  

Hariss, entirely blameless of course and understandably delighted to be his country’s first representative in an AFC Cup decider, spoke of JDT’s away goal and their potential to overcome the two-goal deficit in the second leg.

His optimism was an admirable attempt to add a gloss of credibility to a competition – and a football confederation – that continues to labour under the weight of a disreputable underbelly.

Al-Qadsia are the reigning champions and Kuwait have been represented in the final every year since 2009. But the enforced absence of both club and country is just the latest incident of an Asian football association not playing by the rules.

Crowd trouble marred Malaysia's home World Cup qualifier against Saudi Arabia

FIFA suspended the KFA for government interference, after the association ignored repeated warnings to change the country’s sports law. If changes are not made by the end of October, the International Olympic Committee will consider similar action against Kuwait’s Olympic body.

So it’s another day, another black eye for Asian football; the latest example of a Mickey Mouse organisation run like a deluded Disneyland by self-serving, cartoonish characters. The dramatic ban further reinforces the stereotype, not entirely undeserved, that parts of Asia remain football backwaters, with tin-pot outfits expected to serve personal interests rather than the sporting community.

Of course, the whiff of hypocrisy hangs in the air along the poisoned corridors of FIFA HQ, as blind eyes that were once turned for so long are now suddenly open to the wrongdoings in Asia. But that should not detract from the region’s ongoing failure to clean house.

Kuwait joins Indonesia in FIFA’s banned hall of shame, with others peering in at the window.

Indonesia missed the 2018 World Cup Qualifying campaign, following their suspension for government interference. But the standoff continues, with unsanctioned tournaments such as the President’s Cup and Independence Cup going ahead. Indonesia’s sports ministry remains defiant. Compromise is out. Chaos reigns.

Both law and order are ongoing concerns. At the weekend, the President’s Cup Final between Persib and Sriwijaya FC required a joint security force between the military and the police. Despite the presence of four armoured personnel vehicles outside the stadium, some 714 fans were allegedly involved in riots and subsequently arrested.

Across the Causeway, political interference and crowd trouble are equally pressing problems. Former Asian Football Confederation secretary-general, Datuk Peter Velappan, recently said that the Football Association of Malaysia could also be suspended.

He pointed out that Articles 13 and 17 of the FIFA Statute left no room for ambiguity. Third party influence is prohibited.

If the Malaysian Government does not step away from its national football association, it risks the wrath of FIFA’s new brooms eager to sweep away any stubborn stains left behind by their predecessors.

Coming on the back of a FIFA sanction for the crowd trouble that ruined the World Cup qualifier against Saudia Arabia last month, it’s been an inglorious period for the Malaysian game.

All of which has everything and nothing to do with Hariss and his JDT team-mates. Their place in the semi-final was earned. Their place in the final was decided in a boardroom. JDT are Southeast Asia’s first representatives in the AFC Cup final, thanks to Kuwait’s persistent refusal to play by the rules.

That’s Asian football. There’s often a caveat, a condition, a sordid undertone or a tawdry subtext. Occasions are so rarely unsullied. They are grist for the mill for those seeking to write off the regional game as overly political, parochial, backward, bent or all of the above.

And the men who matter suffer most.

Hariss, along with every other participant, earned a fair shot at a trophy rather than a back-door route to a tainted final.

They just want to play. But in Asia, it can never be just about the football. There’s always an asterisk.