During the increasingly fractious battle in Kuala Lumpur to become President of Asian football, it has been conveniently overlooked amid the political in-fighting that the position is effectively transitionary and only for 18 months.
Potentially far more significant is the other separate vote for a spot on the FIFA executive committee – the most powerful elite gathering in world football. Not least because it is a four-year term as distinct from just keeping the seat warm for possibly someone else.
According to Hassan Al-Thawadi – one of the two candidates bidding to join FIFA’s top table – this is where the real work gets done, this is where you can really bring about change.
In an interview with InsideWorldFootball, a few hours before the ballot, Al-Thawadi said: “Obviously it’s important that the AFC heals its wounds and moves forward but the FIFA exco seat is of more monumental importance. It’s a four-year term and the focus should be on the person who is most qualified to represent Asia.”
So why is he that man rather than his opponent, Bahrain’s Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa who may – or may not – have been voted in as president by the time the FIFA executive committee ballot is staged? Youthful zeal plus a diverse background in law, the gas and oil industry and business was his response.
“We are talking about an age and a time where it’s important that the person concerned has a global as well as an Asian view of football,” says Al-Thawadi, who has campaigned in more than 30 AFC member countries and will have met each federation by the time the vote takes place Thursday.
“In the end the electorate will decide but I believe I’m the right person. The Asian voice needs to be heard loud and clear. As well as having been in football from grass-roots upwards, I’ve also worked on some of the biggest infrastructural and acquisition projects in the world. That means I can discuss things with people in their own field, their own comfort zone.”
And in their own language, Al-Thawadi speaks four fluently, an important factor when dealing with fellow FIFA executive committee members. “It gives me the ability to build bridges on a much more personal level in terms of my vision.”
That vision is based on four specific initiatives which are:
1. Enhanced representation for the AFC within FIFA “to help Asia fulfil its potential and support football’s global growth”;
2. Educational initiatives to provide players in the region with a future in the game beyond their playing careers, to create links between educational institutions and the FAs and provide increased access to courses for administrators and officials;
3. Optimise existing development projects to ensure they are tailored to the specific needs and requirements of the member associations; and
4. Work towards creating the best environment for commercial and administrative success.
As the man best known for running Qatar’s 2022 World Cup operation, sitting on the FIFA executive committee would also, of course, give Al-Thawadi the chance to put a positive spin on the tournament among the powerbrokers who matter.
“Most hosting nations have a representative on the exco. Russia has, Brazil has. World Cups are not just 30-day events, they are more than that. There is an obligation on the host nation to maximise benefits for the region,” said Al-Thawadi.
He doesn’t buy the argument that the AFC president, whoever that is, should automatically have a place on the FIFA exco, as is the case with other confederations. It is somewhat of an anomaly that AFC statutes are different, at least until the rules are changed in 2015.
Again, he stresses, it’s about the right man for the job. “As I have said, the exco seat is for four years, not a transition. There is no guarantee that the new president will the same person elected in 2105. It’s imperative to take a long-term view in terms of what is best for Asia.”
The canny, fast-talking Al-Thawadi has been anxious not to take his eyes off the ball and become embroiled in the tit-for-tat bickering that has plagued the election process. But is he worried about the flak flying around Kuala Lumpur over his Qatari compatriot Mohamed bin Hammam, whose regime as AFC president infamously ended in banishment?
Diplomatic as ever in his answer, Al-Thawadi nevertheless hinted that personal allegiances and any hint of an old boys club had to be put aside for the common good.
“Listen, my focus is on my mandate. I’m my own man and I look towards the future. We need to improve on the pitch and off it. What I will say is that every voter has a big responsibility in terms of who to put on their ballot paper. It’s a big decision. You have to be very sure it’s the best person not only for your immediate organisation but also for raising the profile of football and the AFC.”
Promoting women’s football, lacking behind in certain Asian countries, is another of Al-Thawadi’s initiatives. But what if he loses, not a regular occurance in his line of business? “This may sound arrogant, which is not my style, but it will mean four years without me and my contribution. But I’m very confident of my nomination. Plus, I believe in fate.”
Andrew Warshaw is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball. Contact him at email@example.com