Asia’s troubled soccer body elects a new leader today after a bitter campaign dominated by claim and counterclaim of outside interference and even allegations of human rights abuses.
Two years after vote-buying accusations prompted the eventual downfall of former president Mohamed bin Hammam, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) is at risk of new controversy as delegates gather to choose his successor.
All three leading candidates for the presidency have been accused of either corruption or allowing outside powers to meddle in the vote, tempering hopes of a new era of openness and transparency.
Accusations, denials and counterclaims have flown thick in recent days, as representatives of the AFC’s 46 members meet at a five-star hotel in Kuala Lumpur.
If the battle has been hard-fought, it is because the stakes are high: the AFC, the world’s biggest soccer confederation, has significant revenues and influence across a vast region stretching from the Middle East to Oceania.
In a possible indication of the vote’s importance, FIFA president Sepp Blatter is one of the prominent personalities present in the Malaysian capital.
Three main candidates are in the running to complete bin Hammam’s current term, which concludes in 2015. The Qatari stepped down last year after allegations of bribery and financial wrongdoing, and is barred from soccer activities.
Bahraini Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa is the favorite, but the royal has been on the defensive over vote-buying allegations and claims that he oversaw the arrest of soccer players during a crackdown on pro-democracy protests. Sheikh Salman has also hit back over comments made by disgraced former FIFA vice president Jack Warner that he paid a British journalist to launch a smear campaign against bin Hammam in 2009.
Three Bahrain-focused rights groups have been vocally involved and have urged FIFA to block Sheikh Salman’s candidacy and investigate claims he took part in a purge of players and officials who were arrested and abused.
The United Arab Emirates’ Yousef Al Serkal is confident about his chances, and has been perhaps the most persuasive about cleaning up Asian soccer after vowing to reveal his allowances and launch anti-corruption scheme.
However, Al Serkal is a friend of bin Hammam, a connection which will worry some voters — especially after an accusation this week by an ally of Sheikh Salman that the Qatari businessman was meddling in the election.
Worawi Makudi of Thailand, a long-standing, but controversial presence on the Asian scene, is the third serious contender. Worawi, who has faced down corruption accusations in the past, is also a bin Hammam ally.
Meanwhile, the Kuwait-based Olympic Council of Asia has stayed silent on claims that it manipulated the 2009 vote for Sheikh Salman and is meddling now.
Chinese press speculated that the decision of AFC caretaker leader Zhang Jilong not to stand was taken by China’s sports administration in exchange for keeping badminton and table tennis in the Olympics.