BANGKOK - Once touted as a future FIFA
president, Asia's charismatic but controversial soccer chief
Mohamed Bin Hammam now finds himself scrambling for survival in
his own back yard.
The Qatari, whose deep pockets and big promises helped him
to secure the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) presidency in
2002, is facing the first challenge to his reign in upcoming
elections for the FIFA executive committee.
A little-known rival from the tiny Gulf state of Bahrain is
determined to oust Bin Hammam from the committee seat he has
held for 13 years.
Bahraini soccer federation chairman Shaikh Salman bin
Ebrahim al-Khalifa says he has huge support in a region spanning
46 countries and nine time zones, where pressure against the
59-year-old Bin Hammam is mounting.
Bin Hammam is confident he will prevail, however, and has
vowed to step down as AFC boss if unseated and wave goodbye to
his dreams of taking world soccer's top job.
Al Khalifa believes more nations will back his "Asia for
Change" campaign, and says Bin Hammam's days are numbered.
"Nineteen federations have promised their support (for me)
and I can say easily there are at least eight or nine more who
will join," he told Reuters on Tuesday.
"It's a good sign. They recognise there is a need for a
change of management, to restore unity between all Asian
nations, with fair treatment and equality, free from pressure."
Al Khalifa, however, is widely seen as a stooge for Bin
Hammam's fiercest enemies, who accuse the Qatari of being
arrogant and mismanaging AFC affairs.
Bin Hammam's opponents, largely from East Asia and
disaffected Gulf states, have shown disdain for his attempts to
change AFC statutes -- in an apparent move to protect his
presidency -- and his efforts to move the body out of Kuala
Lumpur, its home for 43 years.
Bin Hammam, who is credited with professionalising the Asian
game with a wave of structural reforms and grassroots
development projects, sees the May 8 FIFA poll as a vote of
confidence on his leadership but is confident his record will
ensure his survival.
"In my opinion, I have turned the organisation into an
organisation of international repute that serves all of Asia,"
he told Reuters in a recent interview.
"AFC had no voice in the international arena before. We
never had representatives at international level to fight for
our causes...but Asia is now taken seriously."
Soccer analysts say Bin Hammam's opposition have been
emboldened by a straining of ties with Sepp Blatter, the
influential FIFA president. Blatter often spoke of his close
relationship with the Qatari, his biggest supporter in his FIFA
Alex Kunawicz, a columnist for the Abu Dhabi-based daily The
National, said it was unlikely Al Khalifa was exaggerating his
support but Bin Hammam should not be written off.
"No one would take him on if they hadn't been promised major
backing, so this is an extra serious challenge," he said.
"But it's not certain what will happen. You never know what
will take place before the vote or what deals will be made.
"Whatever happens, Bin Hammam will be remembered as the man
who modernised and initiated real change in Asian football."
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