By James M. Dorsey
Plans to launch an Association of Southeast Nations Football Federation (AFF) Super League with Singapore-based World Sport Group (WSG) as its marketing partner come against the backdrop of an Asian Football Confederation (AFC) presidential election that could put the company’s $1 billion marketing rights agreement with the Asian soccer body in jeopardy.
The new league would be independent of AFC competitions. It would initially kick off in 2015 with eight franchise teams but would likely grow to 16. Major Southeast Asian soccer nations, including Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore would have a limited number of franchises to ensure that upcoming countries like Laos and Myanmar are also represented.
AFF council member and AFC vice-president Prince Abdullah Ibni Sultan Ahmad Shah told Reuters that "the AFF has agreed to further develop the proposed concept of the ASEAN Super League together with World Sports Group to be presented to the AFC in the near future.’ The AFF needs the AFC to ensure that the winner of its Super League can compete in Asian championships.
Sources said WSG had approached AFF to be the Super League’s marketing partner. “They have a long-term relationship with the AFF and are trusted by the member associations. We asked them to come up with something that works. We made clear to ESH that this is not about money, it is about improving national leagues and clubs,” one source said.
The sources said the league was part of a greater effort to empower regional associations and win AFC recognition. “We have been discussing the super league for years in an effort to develop our profile. We have zero power. Unlike FIFA or the AFC, we can’t compel member associations to do anything. It’s a way of developing training academies and making clubs self-sustainable so that they are not just a billionaire’s vanity project,” one source said.
AFC insiders suggested that although the value of the Super League’s revenues was likely to fall short of those of the AFC that are generated primarily by East Asian nations such as Japan and South Korea, it could constitute a fallback position for WSG should the company lose its Asian contract. Sources pointed to the financal success of the AFF’s Suzuki Cup as well as the commercial potential of soccer in countries like Indonesia and Singapore.
At the same time, the West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) recently put out a tender to replace WSG as its marketing partner after the Singapore company’s contract expired. WAFF is believed to have received several competitive offers.
WSG’s AFC contract is an issue in the AFC presidential campaign that centers on questions of greater transparency, accountability and openness after two scandal-riddled years involving allegations of financial mismanagement and corruption under the leadership of its disgraced and banned former president, Mohammed Bin Hammam.
Of the four presidential candidates in the May 2 election -- Yousuf al Serkal of the United Arab Emirates, Worawi Makdudi of Thailand and Hafez Ibrahim Al Medlej of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain Football Association head Sheik Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa --, Mr. Al Serkal has gone the furthest in promising reforms that could affect the WSG contract.
The UAE soccer executive unveiled earlier this month a platform that promises to publish “all allowances and benefits given to me by the confederation, and expenditure incurred by my office,” establish a whistle-blower hotline encourage the exposure of wrongdoing, make all the AFC’s commercial contracts available to its members for scrutiny, and hire auditors to look at current agreements.
Mr. Al Serkal stopped short of saying that he would implement the recommendations of a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) audit that last year concluded that Mr. Bin Hammam had used an AFC sundry account as his personal account and that raised questions about the negotiation and terms of WSG’s master rights agreement.
The audit noted that the contract had not been put to tender and questioned its terms as well as payments made to Mr. Bin Hammam by a WSG shareholder in advance of the signing of the agreement. It advised the AFC to seek legal advice for possible criminal or civil charges against Mr. Bin Hammam and to ascertain whether the contract with WSG could be renegotiated or even cancelled.
Mr. Al Serkal’s foremost opponent, Sheikh Salman, widely viewed as a frontrunner because he is backed by the Kuwaiti head of the Olympic Council of Asia, Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al-Sabah, insisted in a meeting with reporters in Dubai on Tuesday that he too would address the issues raised by the PwC audit but provided less specifics on how he would go about it.
''If there was wrongdoing in the past, it has to be corrected. If I succeed on second of May, we need to keep our (member associations) and FIFA aware of all the wrongdoing in the past and how we can correct things. The most important thing is to have Asia united again.''
Sheikh Salman, a member of the Bahraini royal family who besides running for the AFC office is competing with Qatar’s Hassan al-Thawadi for a seat on the executive committee of world soccer body FIFA, seemed equally interested in arguing that the AFC presidency should automatically grant him a seat on the FIFA board should he be elected.
The only candidate who is not associated with Mr. Bin Hammam, Sheikh Salman focused much of his reform agenda on fighting match fixing in a region that is at the center of the distortion of the beautiful game. He said he would have zero tolerance for offenders and would enlist the help of governments.
"I think people have sensed the wind of change. I think I represent the new face of Asia. People who want to vote for the change, the choice is clear. If people want to leave matters as they are, they have the right to do so. I think for the last few years it's been like a roller-coaster up and down that the AFC has suffered. I think it's time to steer the ship to calmer waters… We want a clean AFC, we want to do the changes that are needed, the transparency," Sheikh Salman said.
Tweeting on social media platform Twitter, Dubai-based Associated Press sports reporter Mike Casey described Sheikh Salman’s notion of transparency when asked by another reporter about the arrest two years ago of three Bahraini national soccer team players for having participated in a popular uprising that was brutally squashed.
Sheikh Salman has systematically refused to comment on the fact that the players were denounced as traitors on state-run television, allegedly tortured and charged. The charges were ultimately dropped under pressure from FIFA.
"My response is let's talk about football and leave the political side to the other people who deal with that. We hear reports a lot from all sides and I am here to talk about the elections. I don't want to talk about these matters because the moment you talk about it, it opens the door. Since I have been in charge of football here in Bahrain, we always leave religious and political matters and views outside to try to focus on the game,” Sheikh Salman said in Dubai.
The nexus of sports and politics in Bahrain was however evident this week with members of Bahrain's village-based February 14th Coalition youth movement exploding a series of non-lethal devices in protest against Bahrain’s Formula One Grand Prix. The attacks dubbed Operation: Ultimatum 3 followed mass demonstrations against this week’s staging of the race at a time of continued political and social strife organized by Bahrain’s official opposition that included a 1.6 kilometer long stretch of protesters blocking a key highway.
On Twitter, Mr. Casey, who was last year barred entry to Bahrain but granted a visa to cover this week’s F1m initially reported that the moderator of Sheikh Salman’s press conference intervened when he was asked about the players and that the question went unanswered. Mr. Casey subsequently tweeted: “Told to leave #SheikSalman's presser over stories I've written in past, not a good first step for openness.” He finally said on Twitter: “Organizers at #Sheik Salman’s presser allow me to remain after I refuse to leave, welcome them to call security.”
At least one other reporter was barred from attending the news conference because of critical reporting on Bahrain.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog