AFC presidential candidates’ promises of reform put World Sport Group in the crosshairs

By James M. Dorsey

Candidates in next month’s Asian Football Confederation (AFC) presidential election designed to appoint a successor to disgraced Qatari national Mohammed Bin Hammam are competing to project themselves as agents of change following two years of scandals in world soccer involving charges of corruption and financial mismanagement.

On the surface of it, all four candidates in the May 2 election lack the credentials of a reformer. Three of them – Yousuf al Serkal of the United Arab Emirates, Worawi Makdudi of Thailand and Hafez Al Medlej of Saudi Arabia – are close associates of Mr. Bin Hammam while Bahrain Football Association head Sheik Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa represents a nation that two years ago banned three of its top national soccer team players for taking part in a failed public uprising.

At least one of the players was allegedly tortured while in detention. Sheikh Salman, a member of the Bahraini royal family, has largely refrained from criticizing the arrests of the players or the sacking of some 150 other sports executives and athletes, many of whom have since been reinstated.

Nevertheless, if the winning candidate sticks to his campaign promises greater transparency in and improved governance of Asian soccer may be on the horizon.

Speaking to reporters in Dubai this week, Mr. Al Serkal, the only prominent Bin Hammam associate never to have been accused of wrongdoing, detailed a program that would involve significant change. The UAE official and AFC executive committee member promised to publish “all allowances and benefits given to me by the confederation, and expenditure incurred by my office,” establish a whistle-blower hotline to encourage the exposure of wrongdoing, make all the AFC’s commercial contracts available for its members to scrutinize 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 a $1 billion master rights agreement (MRA) with Singapore-based World Sport Group (WSG).

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. Bin Hammam, who dominated Asian soccer for a decade, was last year banned for life by world soccer body FIFA from involvement in soccer because of alleged conflicts of interest that violated the group’s code of ethics.

If elected and if he sticks to his word, Mr. Al Serkal would be encouraging unprecedented scrutiny of the AFC’s relationship with WSG. Sheikh Salman was viewed until Mr. Al Serkal’s detailing of his program as the most likely candidate to introduce reform. Sheikh Salman, who is supported by the powerful Kuwaiti head of the Olympic Council of Asia, Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al-Sabah, was narrowly defeated some four years ago by Mr. Bin Hammam in a bitter battle for a seat on the FIFA executive committee that involved personal attacks, power abuse claims and alleged cash bribes for votes.   

Sheikh Salman drafted in February a seven-point program entitled United for Change that pledged to fight match-fixing, doping and illegal betting; ensure full financial transparency by introducing international accounting standards and externally audited yearly reports; and guarantee equality in the distribution of AFC commercial revenues.

WSG has gone to great lengths to ensure the confidentiality of its agreement with the AFC as well as to control its implementation. Sources close to the AFC as previously reported on this blog have said that not all executive committee members have seen the MRA and that those who have could only do so on the premises of the AFC and that WSG last year engineered the early departure of the head of the AFC marketing committee, who had previously been banned from attending marketing meetings with the AFC contractor.

WSG moreover last year initiated legal action against this reporter for writing about the PwC audit even though it had already been widely reported and for reporting that the AFC had been advised not to sign the MRA because it was not in the group’s interest. WSG demanded in the proceedings that this reporter disclose his sources in a bid to silence him and his sources and intimidate potential whistleblowers.

In a landmark decision in late February, a Singapore court granted this reporter the right to appeal an earlier court order that he disclose sources. The court dismissed WSG's application to strike out his appeal.
Mr. Al Serkal dismissed Mr. Bin Hammam’s endorsement of his candidacy in a Twitter message to Bloomberg News, saying “that friendship had nothing to do with the work that we used to do. I always had different ideas and opinions and had conflict with him and raised issues in meeting. I keep friendship separate from work.”

The burden on the new president of the AFC to introduce reform is reinforced by the fact that FIFA members will next month vote on host of reform proposals in the wake of several scandals involving alleged wrong doing by members of its executive committee. That burden is further bolstered by the fact that Asia has been at the center of a match-fixing scandal that has rocked world soccer. Authorities in Singapore, from where the match fixers are believed to operate, last week charge three Lebanese executives with accepting sexual favors as an inducement to fix a game.

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


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