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 By John Duerden

Salman's near miss in FIFA elections may be blessing in disguise for Asia

Asia will have to wait for its first FIFA president. Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa was widely expected to triumph in last Friday's election for the top job in world football but in the end the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) chief lost out to Gianni Infantino. It was a dramatic day but whether it marks a dramatic shift in how the game is governed remains to be seen.

While the result reinforces the feeling that FIFA is still a European club with the new man hailing from the same part of Switzerland as the old, Asia can take heart from coming so close. And when the AFC does provide its first president, it is best that he or she comes with a clean slate.

It was a first, however, to see two of the three main actors on the world stage coming from the AFC. Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein was the man who first challenged Sepp Blatter last May, winning over a third of the vote just days before the Swiss supremo announced that he was going to step down. The meant a re-run for the Jordanian but this time, with the long-serving Blatter out of the way, it was always going to be a more complex affair.

Prince Ali may have received less support this time but he had a huge influence. The vast majority of his 27 votes from the first round went in the direction of Infantino and pushed him over the line in the second.

Sheikh Salman congratulated Gianni Infantino after the latter was voted in as FIFA's new president on Friday.

This was not an accident. With the man from Amman known as much more of a reform-minded candidate than Sheikh Salman, it could well be that Prince Ali didn't see much chance of change with the Bahraini in charge, or it could have been related to the fact that two don't see eye-to-eye on many issues. Whatever the reason, it made a difference.

The frosty relationship between the pair is not going to be improved. But then, given the fact that Salman took Ali's seat on FIFA's Executive Committee away in 2014, they may not be working together much anyway.

For Asia, the biggest impact in the short term is that there will be no presidential election. Ever since it became apparent that Salman was considering a tilt at the world title, the maneuvering started behind the scenes.

Ears all over the continent pricked up as soon as the boss said he was applying for a new job. Calls were made, meetings were held and deals discussed. Had Salman won, then the whispers in Zurich would have reached a crescendo that would not have stopped in the next six months before a new vote could be held. It would have been a major distraction, with plenty to be done.

It is not an election that would have been welcome in terms of unity. It could have served to widen the divisions across the continent. Already, officials in the east were growing concerned that not only would the FIFA president from be from West Asia, but the reasonable chance that the AFC president would be too. This was an idea that was going down very badly.

Salman being FIFA president was all well and good but there would have been a bitter fight to prevent another West Asian moving to the continental chairmanship. There were potential candidates springing up from all corners of Asia.

Despite being the pre-election favourite, Sheikh Salman lost to Gianni Infantino after the second round of voting.

So a bloody battle has been avoided and the status quo returns. But how enthusiastic will Sheikh Salman be about returning to Asia when the world was within his grasp?

As an administrator, the president has been efficient and the confederation functions more smoothly than before.

His major failing so far though is that he has yet to bring the transparency he promised when elected three years ago, especially in regard to reviewing the controversial rights' contract that predecessor Mohamed Bin Hammam negotiated with World Sports Group in 2009. The AFC remains a secretive organisation.

It is unclear how Sheikh Salman, and his influential supporter Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah, of Kuwait, react to the defeat. These are men used to getting their own way in Asia and it could well have been Sheikh Ahmad replacing Sheikh Salman as AFC boss.

The AFC declared its support for Salman repeatedly but there was always going to be a number of nations behind Prince Ali. Most, if not all, of these switched to Infantino in the second round. There are also claims that a few Salman supporters did the same.

Such reports will not make for happy reading in Manama. The next AFC Congress, scheduled for May, could be interesting.

Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.


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