Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa’s runaway success in becoming the new leader of Asian football – on paper only until 2015 but in all probability far beyond – was about as clearcut as you can get. But it nevertheless contained all the elements of a classic Shakespearean plot: revenge, intrigue, conspiracy theories, false promises – and just as many questions as answers.
Revenge, says the old cliche, is a dish best served cold. Exactly four years ago, Salman lost out to Mohamed bin Hammam for a place on the top table of FIFA, a bitter contest marred by accusations of vote-buying on both sides.
He had been waiting ever since to gain revenge and with the disgraced bin Hammam now out of the picture, nothing and no-one was going to get in his way. Not even, in the end, a barrage of alleged human rights violations in his native Bahrain against footballers and officials who dared support the pro-democracy uprising.
Those left in Salman’s slipstream in Kuala Lumpur not only included human rights campaigners but his two opponents for Presidency of the Asian Football Confederation. Both AFC vice-president Yousuf Al-Serkal of the United Arab Emirates and Thai football supremo Worawi Makudi were known allies of bin Hammam. Makudi, okay, is himself tainted with corruption claims, even in his own country. Al-Serkal, for his part, insisted throughout the election campaign that he had his own independent agenda for future reform. No matter. Both were ruthlessly swept aside in Kuala Lumpur.
The obvious conclusion to be drawn is that there was ultimately a concerted effort by Asia’s 46 voting members countries to put an end to old allegiances and move forward. But it’s not as simple as that. Both Al-Serkal – who, unlike Salman, campaigned on a detailed platform that promised to address mismanagement of the AFC’s financial affairs – and Maduki were convinced they had enough votes at least to take their respective bids into the second round.
As often happens with ballots of such sensitivity and political magnitude – we have seen it many times before – some of the promises they were given by supposed supporters were clearly broken.
Why was that? Could the answer lie with the President of FIFA? It was telling that Sepp Blatter, whom bin Hammam not so long ago accused of being behind his fall from grace, congratulated Salman on his “brilliant” victory. It was equally telling that Blatter made it clear that whoever became the new President of the AFC had to have a seat on the FIFA executive committee too, as is the case with the other five FIFA confederations.
Could it be therefore that Blatter’s influence, as well as scuppering the hopes of the other Presidential candidates, also dashed the chances of Hassan Al-Thawadi, who was bidding for the vacant FIFA executive committee spot but which also went to Salman in a tighter but nevertheless decisive vote? After all, bin Hammam, like Al-Thawadi, is from Qatar. Not only that. Blatter is believed to have voted for the United States over Qatar to stage the 2022 World Cup yet we all know what happened on that momentous day in December, 2010.
What a difference two years make. Just as Qatar won by a landslide to secure the World Cup, prompting an outpouring of euphoria in the tiny Gulf state, so the canny, multi-lingual al-Thawadi this time was left a vanquished figure, without the chance to display his negotiating skills on the most powerful committee in world football – unlike the next two World Cup hosts, Brazil and Russia.
It certainly wasn’t the best of endings for the 2022 World Cup hosts in Kuala Lumpur. Legitimate questions remain about why FIFA, 24 hours before the vote, took the rare step, based on a newspaper report, to warn Qatar against bin Hammam breaking the terms of his ban by privately lobbying in support of Al-Serkal.
Why did FIFA intervene yet stand by and do nothing when it came to complaints about the Olympic Council of Asia campaigning on behalf of Salman under the guise of the Kuwaiti football authorities? Why did they also ignore a spate of correspondence from established human rights organisations?
What, too, was the real truth behind China’s Jilong Zhang pulling out of the running having been happy to do the job for two years after bin Hammam’s life ban? Pressure from the afore-mentioned OCA is the reason most insiders are giving. Interestingly, wasn’t it, that Zhang’s entire part of Asia voted for Salman? What would have happened if he had instead stayed to fight? Blatter, for all his backing for Salman, was clearly disappointed that Zhang had withdrawn. He said as much, even on the day of the vote itself.
We may never get satisfactory answers to any of these issues but they cast a dark shadow over an election marred by trademark sniping and backbiting. Rather like footballers shaking hands after a foul-ridden match, all the candidates were gracious in defeat afterwards. They invariably are but privately, in this case, they will be spitting blood at seeing all their campaigning come to nothing, a scenario far more likely to cause continuing disunity in this dysfunctional Continent rather than much-needed integration.
Salman will point to the fact that, just as football tables don’t lie, nor do landslide election results. “We need complete reforms, what we need is an AFC where decision makers are accountable,” he said in the aftermath of victory. “Clean up the past and turn the page for the future, restore transparency and integrity.”
Strong rhetoric and perhaps he should be given a chance to pull the warring factions together. The fear, however, is that the reform process will be on his terms alone. And that ultimately, only one thing mattered in this most embittered of elections: moving on from the bin Hammam era, no matter how a strong case the various candidates had for cleaning up Asian football.
Andrew Warshaw is chief correspondent of Insideworldfootball. Contact Andrew at email@example.com