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SEOUL, South Korea — The motto of the Asian Football Confederation is 'The Future is Asia', yet a series of recent controversies indicate the game seems unable to shake off its unhappy history of corruption, bribery and political interference across the continent.
Asian football may be making great strides in some areas — luring top quality players — but the problems off the pitch remain as a brake on development, with Syria's expulsion from the 2014 World Cup qualifiers being yet another example.
In its second-round win over Tajikistan in July, Syria selected George Mourad despite the fact that the player had represented Sweden earlier in his career and was therefore ineligible.
The Syrian Football Association queried the decision and said FIFA's ban was politically motivated — a charge that is a common and often legitimate refrain in the Middle East nations.
Political interference is endemic on multiple levels, according to James Dorsey, a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
"Soccer in West Asia, a region dominated by autocratic regimes, constitutes both an image booster and a threat to governments," Dorsey told The Associated Press. "As a result, political interference is part of the game. Across the region countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar witness a rapid turnover of coaches and trainers because they approach them as a zero-sum game.
"Ironically, Syria — prior to the eruption of this year's anti-government protest — had actually witnessed a degree of improved professionalism. But with professional matches suspended because of the protests and a brutal government crackdown, embattled president Bashar al Assad has regained a degree of control."
In recent years, FIFA has suspended the federations of Kuwait, Iran, Yemen and Iraq for political interference in their national football bodies.
Bahrain ran the risk of receiving a similar sentence earlier this year, after established internationals Sayed Mohamed Adnan, Alaa and Mohammed Hubail were imprisoned in April, accused of taking part in anti-government demonstrations.
While they have since been released, charges have not been dropped and they will not play in the third-round qualifier against Qatar beginning on Sept. 2.
It is not just the national bodies that are in political turmoil. Even the AFC itself is without a president after Mohammed bin Hammam was banned from all football activities for life in July by FIFA's Ethics Committee after being found guilty of vote buying during his failed bid to replace FIFA president Sepp Blatter.
The AFC has left the presidency open pending the outcome of bin Hammam's appeals — leaving Asia's peak body leaderless at a time it is being urged to make reforms to promote the game.
West Asia has struggled at times with incompetence and interference, and Southeast Asia has had its own issues.
This year alone, elections to choose the head of the federations in Thailand and Indonesia were suspended amid political infighting. Long-term head of the Indonesian FA Nurdin Halid, jailed for corruption during his leadership, was finally prevented from running for a third term.
In June, Djohar Arifin Husin was elected and two days into the new regime, and just a week before the start of qualification for the 2014 World Cup, national team coach Alfred Riedl was fired. The former Austrian coach was told that his contract was invalid. "I have since had no contact with the new federation," said Riedl, who believes he is a victim of the political rivalries between Nurdin and his enemies. "I have still not been paid and I have sent all the details to FIFA."
Corruption is a long-standing problem in the region. According to Steve Darby, an English coach with experience in Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore, a more professional outlook would help.
"There have been recent arrests in Malaysia but the problem is deep-rooted," said Darby. "The basic first step is to pay on time and in full, as debt, especially in poorer countries, is a major contributor to match-fixing."
Former English Premier League defender Zesh Rehman plays for Thailand champion Muang Thong United and believes that Southeast Asian football is getting its act together.
"There is always room for improvement," Rehman told AP. "But the level of professionalism at Muang Thong is very good. Our club is the benchmark for others in terms of fan base, marketing, and the club in general as a brand. Countries like Japan and Korea are what Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysia should be aspiring to emulate, it's starting to happen."
South Korea's not exempt from off-field strife. The K-League, Asia's oldest and most successful national league in terms of continental titles, this week imposed a lifetime ban on 40 footballers for their alleged involvement in a match-fixing. The ban from appearing in games and assuming any official football-related jobs follows a similar punishment handed to 10 players in June. Seven indicted footballers-turned-gambling brokers have also been banned.
Authorities are drawing up plans for a revised league with much stricter operating criteria for clubs to meet from 2013.
Despite the problems around Asia, the general direction of the continent is forward.
James Montague, author of When Friday Comes, a book about football and politics in the Middle East, believes that Syria didn't do its homework with Mourad but is optimistic about the future.
"The professionalism of the players in the region is actually pretty good when you look at what they have to put up with: war, political interference, ineptitude within federations, corruption and poverty. When you look at somewhere like Palestine, where in three years they have built a professional league, started a women's league and built their first home stadium, there is proof that it is going in the right direction."