Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president Mohammed Bin Hammam is set to announce next week that he will challenge Sepp Blatter in FIFA presidential elections scheduled for June 1. Defeating Blatter is however likely to prove an uphill struggle challenge despite calls for reform of soccer’s world body and likely support by the AFC and the English Football Association.
Bin Hammam’s candidacy will highlight the increasing influence of the Middle East and Asia in world soccer. His native Qatar is the first Middle Eastern nation to host the World Cup, the world’s biggest sporting event. If elected, Bin Hammam - a 61 year-old, self-made commoner with close ties to the Qatari ruling family who made his millions in real estate, construction and drilling - would be the first FIFA president to hail from non-European stock.
Bin Hammam has long predicted the ascendancy of the Middle East and Asia in world soccer. "Within 20 years, Asia is going to lead world football. We have 3.7 billion people – even if you only attract the interest of the Asians, you'll have two-thirds of the world's population. Asia also has a strong economy. Think about India, China, Japan, the Middle East,’" he told The Guardian two years ago.
Ironically, Bin Hammam’s calls for reform of FIFA mirror the popular revolt sweeping the Middle East and North Africa with demands for an end to authoritarian rule and increased freedom. Qatar, although hardly a democracy, is so far one of the few Arab states unaffected by the revolt that has already toppled two autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia and is resisting brutal efforts to crush it by Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadaffi. While Bin Hammam is likely to have Qatari backing, other Middle Eastern royals may not want to see a commoner gain enhanced power at a time that their rule is being questioned by protests at home.
With the approaching April 1 deadline to announce his candidacy, Bin Hammam, 61, has repeatedly hinted that he would rather take on Blatter now than wait four years to face off with European soccer chief Michel Platini, who is expected to run in 2015. His strategy however is to keep everyone guessing until the last minute, “Speculation can be good,” Bin Hammam told World Football Insider on the side lines of an Olympics qualifier between Palestine and Thailand.
Bin Hammam’s attendance at the Palestine qualifier, Palestine’s first ever official match played on home ground, signalled his willingness to employ soccer as a builder of bridges in a part of the world defined by its animosities. Many Arabs see crossing into the West Bank through Israeli border controls as tantamount to recognition of Israeli occupation. Ironically, Israel’s computer system didn’t fully share Bin Hammam’s view. The AFC president was detained for two hours at the border allegedly because of Israeli computer problems. "Mohamed Bin Hammam passes through the border and the Israeli computer breaks down?" scoffed a Palestine Football Association official. "Can you imagine?"
In campaigning for the FIFA presidency, Bin Hammam will have to fight vested interests in Blatter’s imperial-style rule and demonstrate that he has a clearly defined vision that amounts to more than peppering his statements with buzz words such as more transparency, engaging stakeholders and respecting clubs . Bin Hammam was last week somewhat more specific when he told World Football Insider that he favoured an independently appointed FIFA ethics committee rather than one appointed by the world body’s executive committee. "To win an election like this, you need to be able to present a real vision of the future, have a real plan. I don't think Mr Bin Hammam has a plan. He has ideas and talks of reform, but many people in world football like the way things are,” a FIFA insider said.
Blatter has successfully campaigned in the past despite allegations of mismanagement and corruption by splitting the support base of his opponents. Bin Hammam is building his candidacy on criticism of Blatter for tarnishing FIFA’s image with his handling of recent corruption scandals. "If you look at his own constituency, the Asian Confederation is split. If he does not have the backing of his own Confederation, he cannot become the president of FIFA,” a FIFA insider said.
Divisions within Bin Hammam’s most natural backyard, Arab soccer, were evident in January when Jordanian Prince Ali Bin Hussein was elected to the FIFA executive committee with Blatter’s backing. The Kuwaiti president of the Olympic Council of Asia, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, said at the time that those who voted for Prince Ali would support Blatter’s re-election. Prince Ali, however, has since suggested that Arab solidarity rather than loyalty to Blatter could determine his choice in the upcoming FIFA presidential election.
Blatter last month sought to tarnish Bin Hammam’s effort to portray himself as a squeaky clean agent of change by confirming publicly that Qatar had colluded with Spain and Portugal to swap votes in violation of FIFA bidding rules. Qatar supported the failed Spanish-Portuguese bid to host the 2018 World Cup in exchange for Iberian backing of Qatar’s 2022 bid. In confirming the illicit deal, Blatter felt confident enough to contradict FIFA’s earlier declarations that its investigation of the alleged vote swap had found no substantiating evidence.