By JOHN DUERDEN, Associated Press
SEOUL, South Korea (AP)—This is the Year of the Dragon in China, one for
bold decision-making and strong leadership, and one that may see the country
emerge as the political power of Asian football.
The Asian Football Confederation can hold elections for its presidency any time
from June onward to replace Mohammed bin Hammam, who is appealing his life
ban from the sport for vote-buying in the FIFA presidential election.
China’s Zhang Jilong has been the acting president since May 2011 and is the
favourite to win this year’s vote but faces some strong challenges, particularly\ from west Asia.
After the turmoil following Bin Hammam’s expulsion, Zhang has provided steady
and uncontroversial leadership. He also has the backing of people such as Peter
Velappan, who was the AFC General Secretary from 1978 to 2007.
“Zhang will be a good choice,” Velappan told The Associated Press. “He has gone
through the different levels of Asian football. I remember him from the Chinese FA and from there he has been with AFC for around 30 years and he knows football and politics in Asia. He deserves a term as AFC president at least.”
For Velappan, it is not just about Zhang’s credentials. Geography also plays a part.
For 42 of the 44 years from 1958 to 2002, the AFC president was supplied by host
country Malaysia. That changed 10 years ago when Bin Hammam, a Qatari, took
control. Velappan, also from Malaysia, believes that it is time for East Asia to supply its first leader in more than five decades.
“Now it is time for regional rotation,” he said. “The presidency should not last more than two terms and then go around the regions if they have candidates that are good enough. Compared to my day, there are more people who have the potential and the leadership skills to be good candidates in the future.”
Zhang’s first challenge is to unite his region behind him, but he first faces a potential challenge from Japan’s Kozo Tashima, a member of the AFC’s Executive Committee and vice president of Japan’s FA. Tashima is popular but his relative lack of profile outside East Asia means that a win is unlikely. He could, however, damage the Chinese challenge.
Whatever happens in his backyard, Zhang’s fiercest challenge will come from the
western reaches of the continent.
The fact that Qatar has provided the president for nine years does not mean that
the Gulf and Middle East nations will be content to allow East Asia to have its turn
in charge, according to James Dorsey, senior fellow of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.
“This is about a region with Qatar and to a lesser degree Bahrain and the UAE in the lead that is projecting itself as a global sports hub and a player,” Dorsey told The AP. “In doing so it is competing with East and Southeast Asian nations.”
At the turn of the year there are two leading candidates from the region. Yousuf
Al Serkal is a current vice-president of the AFC. The former president of the United Arab Emirates Football Association is close to Bin Hammam and the only potential candidate to talk openly of running for the post.
According to Dorsey, Serkel’s relationship with the deposed president will not be a
negative and he “is viewed as honest and not corrupt and as a result could emerge
as an Arab compromise candidate.”
His rival is Sheik Salman Bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa, the president of the Bahrain
Football Association. The member of the country’s ruling family, Salman is a
well-known figure in Asia. In May 2009, he challenged Bin Hammam for his seat on FIFA’s Executive Committee only to lose a bitter election by only two votes.
Salman has been actively campaigning behind the scenes but according to Dorsey,
his chances have been damaged over the last few months due to his family’s crackdown on Bahraini protests that started in 2011, particularly the imprisonment of a number of athletes and footballers.
“My sense is that there is a growing understanding in West Asia that Salman is
controversial because of last year’s events in Bahrain and the ongoing protests,”
Dorsey said. “That is not to say that he is not able to garner some Arab support
but it would not be unanimous.”
The wrangling between east and west could allow AFC vice president Prince Abdullah Ibni Sultan Amhad Shah to emerge as a compromise candidate from Malaysia.