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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Arab soccer officials and media rally around Bin Hammam


Arab soccer officials and media rallied Monday around suspended, one-time world soccer body FIFA presidential candidate Mohammed Bin Hammam, a day after the organization’s ethics committee decided to launch a full-fledged investigation into allegations that he and three other officials had engaged in bribery to garner support for his candidacy.

Arab anger was reflected on the Qatari stock exchange as stocks declined amid fears that FIFA could cancel last year’s executive committee vote that awarded the Gulf state the right to host the 2022 World Cup.

Investor fears were sparked by an email sent by FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcker to North American and Caribbean soccer boss Jack Warner asserting that Qatar had bought its winning bid. Mr. Warner is one of the three officials besides Mr. Bin Hammam who was suspended by the ethics committee. Mr. Valcker’s email fuelled mounting allegations that Qatar had employed bribery in its World Cup bid campaign and suspicions that Mr. Bin Hammam would have had to have been at least aware of, if not a party to the corrupt practice.

The suspension of Mr. Bin Hammam, who has close ties to the Qatari royal family, casts a further shadow over the Gulf state’s successful bid. A series of revelations in British newspaper The Sunday Times allege that Qatar paid two FIFA executive committee members for their votes and discussed deliberately circumventing FIFA bidding rules.

Qatar furiously denounced allegations of wrongdoing and said it would welcome an independent investigation. That may no longer be enough with critics of the awarding of the World Cup to the Gulf state already sharpening their knives.

Mr. Bin Hammam has condemned the ethics committee’s decision to suspend him and said that he would appeal it.

The Qatari national, who headed the Asian Football Confederation, is suspected of having sought to buy the votes of members of the Caribbean Football Union at a meeting in Trinidad earlier this month. Mr. Bin Hammam and the other officials have denied the allegations.

If found guilty, Mr. Bin Hammam and the others could be expelled from FIFA.

Mr. Bin Hammam is being replaced as AFC chief until the conclusion of the investigation by senior AFC vice president Zhang Jilong of China.

Middle Eastern anger was further fuelled by the committee’s decision that FIFA President Sepp Blatter had no obligation to report knowledge he may have had about the alleged bribery because his knowledge would have been about intent rather than a committee breach of FIFA’s code of ethics.

The committee decision paved the way for Mr. Blatter to stand as the sole candidate for a fourth term as FIFA president in elections scheduled for Wednesday.

Mr. Bin Hammam withdrew his candidacy hours before Sunday’s committee hearing called to determine whether charges that Mr. Bin Hammam had paid Caribbean football leaders paid $40,000 each to back his now-abandoned presidential bid.

Egypt’s Al-Gomhuria compared Mr. Blatter to ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarakm calling him a "sly fox who cannot be easily hunted.''

AFC vice president Yousuf al-Serkal, a UAE ally of Mr. Bin Hammam repeated earlier remarks that the charges against the Qatari were trumped up to force him out of the FIFA presidential race, a view widely shared by Arab soccer officials and media.

Arab criticism of the ethics committee decision focused on the fact that he was suspended even though the committee emphasized that it was not pronouncing whether Mr. Bin Hammam and the other officials were guilty or not. The committee said it had merely concluded that there was the appearance of an infringement that needed to be further investigated.

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