By James M. Dorsey
The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has announced an election to replace its banned former head, Mohammed Bin Hammam that will determine the group’s sincerity in breaking with the past by acting on recommendations for reform and ensuring good governance.
The election comes against the backdrop of multiple scandals that have rocked soccer’s governing bodies. Mr. Bin Hammam was at the center of the scandals. After a bitter battle, he was late last year banned for life by FIFA, world football’s governing authority, on charges of mismanagement of the AFC’s finances and “repeated violations” of the FIFA Code of Ethics related to conflict of interest.
“This election is not about the presidency; it is about reform and good governance within the AFC. Candidates will have to step up to the plate and present their credentials for reform,” said a source close to the AFC.
Nominations for the election, which will be held on May 2, are open until March 3. So far, three candidates – Acting AFC president Zhang Zhilong of China, Yousuf Al Serkal from the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain’s Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa – are believed to be in the running. It was not clear whether a representative of the reformers within the AFC would run for the group’s highest office.
Of the three current candidates, only Mr. Zhang, who despite having headed the AFC’s finance committee during Mr. Bin Hammam’s tenure, has shown any inclination towards badly needed reform of the AFC.
Mr. Serkal, who hired two employees of the AFC who were dismissed for their alleged involvement in Mr. Bin Hammam’s financial management and were named in an internal audit that brought the mismanagement to light, is widely seen as close to the disgraced Qatari national.
Sheikh Salman is controversial because of his endorsement of a crackdown on Bahraini athletes and sports executives, including members of the Gulf state’s national soccer team, some of who claimed that they were tortured in prison, for their participation in 2011 in a popular uprising on the island.
The internal audit conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) charged that Mr. Bin Hammam had used an AFC personal account as his personal account and raised questions about his negotiation of a $1 billion master rights agreement with Singapore-based World Sport Group (WSG). It said that a WSG shareholder, associated with Saudi billionaire Saleh Kamel, had made two payments totaling $14 million to Mr. Bin Hammam in advance of signing the agreement.
PwC said that there was a “significant risk that: i. The AFC may have been used as a vehicle to launder funds and that the funds have been credited to the former President (Bin Hammam) for an improper purpose (Money Laundering risk), ii. The AFC may have been used as a vehicle to launder the receipt and payment of bribes.”
The AFC executive committee late last year deferred the audit to its legal committee in a move that was widely seen as an attempt to bury it at least temporarily until the presidential election. WSG has initiated legal proceedings against this reporter in an unsuccessful bid to squash unfavorable reporting about its affairs and silence sources.
The stakes for the AFC and its credibility are high. The banning of Mr. Bin Hammam and the PwC report come in an environment in which world soccer’s governing bodies are viewed as secretive, non-transparent and unaccountable at best and corrupt at worst and that raises more questions than soccer officials have been willing to answer.
The newly elected AFC president will be under pressure to act on the PwC report that called on the AFC to seek legal counsel on possible civil or criminal action against Mr. Bin Hammam and to establish whether the WSG contract can be re-negotiated or even cancelled. “The new president will have to prioritize reform taking the PwC report into consideration,” said a source close to the AFC.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.