Jilong declines AFC presidency
While the news did not come as a total surprise, it was still a shock. The atmosphere inside the Park Hyatt Hotel meeting room, where an Extraordinary Executive Committee meeting of the East Asian Football Federation was taking place, dropped to something approaching the sub-zero temperatures on the Gangnam streets outside. Lin Xiaohua, the vice-president of the Chinese FA, had just informed the other nine members that Zhang Jilong, the acting president of the Asian Football Confederation, was not going to enter the May election for the permanent job.
With just 48 hours left before the March 3 deadline for nomination, heads quickly turned in the direction of AFC Executive Committee member Kozo Tashima and received a shake of the head. If there was any doubt, it was removed shortly after when the Japan FA made clear that their vice-president was not about to pick up the baton and run to try and give East Asia a first president since the fifties.
China, Japan and South Korea account for 1.5 billion people and are in serious economic clout. East Asia has long been responsible for much of the football success the continent has enjoyed. Its leagues are the best, its clubs dominate the Asian Champions League, its national teams enjoy success on the global stage and its players are active in the big European leagues. For much of the world, East Asian football is Asian football and yet, despite all the achievements on that field, on the pitch of football politics, it is often outclassed, outthought and outfought by West Asian opposition.
In December there was a determination not to let that happen again. At a tenth anniversary celebration for the East Asian federation in Tokyo (and a year almost to the day after Zhang had first sounded out Japanese support in the same city), the big three were resolute in their desire to support Zhang who had taken the hotseat since the suspension of Mohamed Bin Hammam in May 2011 after allegations of corruption. Even North Korea was on board.
Zhang was backed because he had the best chance of winning. He was the chosen one, the wide-eyed Neo ready to take on the agents of western power in the matrix of Asian football politics. In the background was a collective Morpheus made up of officials at the Korean and Japan FAs set to clear the way for their boy to seize power.
Plans were made, strategies agreed upon and schedules settled. As soon as the Chinese New Year festivities ended in mid February, the campaign would be ready to swing into action. But the 'on' switch was never pressed and instead of the whirrings of a well-oiled machine, there was silence. Perhaps Zhang was acting all dignified and presidential and allowing 'the challengers' to make the first move? It proved to be wishful thinking. Complaints about an overly passive start soon became genuine questions as to what the hell was going on. He was more of a steady pair of hands than a charismatic man of action, all knew that, but strong silent types don't win elections and, it turns out, don't even run.
Conversation turned to the reason why. Few know for sure though the theories are many. Perhaps Zhang realised he couldn't win, perhaps it was the prospect of losing his other influential positions if he were to lose the election, perhaps it was due to the presence of skeletons in cupboards or perhaps he decided that he just did not want or need the hassle. Most feel that the withdrawal came about due to pressure from the Chinese Olympic Association thanks to Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Ahmed Al Sabah, the Kuwaiti president of the Olympic Council of Asia.
Sheikh Ahmed is backing Sheikh Salman, one of four candidates and one of three from West Asia. The Bahraini is the favourite and looking strong and, often in Asian football politics, the stronger you look, the stronger you become as more associations become keen to be seen to support the next president.
One major advantage is that Salman, a Manchester United fan, has been campaigning ever since May 2009 when he pushed Bin Hammam all the way in an election for a seat on the FIFA Executive Committee. That assault on the Qatari was orchestrated in Seoul, helped by Tokyo and supported by a number of others in East and south-east Asia. His ability to collect votes outside his own region could be crucial. It was perhaps fitting that at a meeting of the West Asian Football Federation last week, one set to talk about the possibility of selecting one candidate from the region, Salman was en route from Seoul to Tokyo, the second and third destinations in a tour of half a dozen - Beijing was not on the list, suggesting that the Chinese vote, and that of its satellites such as Macau and Hong Kong is already secure.
It has been said that the ongoing political unrest in Bahrain, which resulted in the arrest of national team players in April 2011, is a whiff of controversy that could cost Salman, a member of the ruling royal family and head of the Bahrain FA. That doesn't seem to be the case. Few associations outside West Asia seem to know about the situation and even less care.
Inside West Asia, Yousef Al-Serkal is drumming up support. The head of the UAE FA and a vice-president of the AFC is open about the fact he is an ally of Bin Hammam. His plan is to firm up his regional base before striking out east in search of support.
Dr Hafez Al Medlej, the candidate from Saudi Arabia could muddy the voters. He has some serious profile building to do and sources close to the AFC's marketing head suggest that his decision to run could be part of a long-term plan to help a future bid. The relationship between the Saudis and Bahrain is close in many fields and often Manama will give way to Riyadh if the situation demands it. Not here though. It is highly unlikely Sheikh Salman will withdraw unless he feels he can't win and that is not the case.
In early March, Salman told ESPN that he was confident of his chances. "In 2009 I said that I had a 50-50 chance and I was right. In this election, so far things are moving well. I think now I am 70-80% there."
And what of Worawi Makudi? The controversial Thai FA boss and FIFA Executive Committee member has little to lose and being the only runner from outside West Asia gives him much to gain. It is not automatic that he can collect votes from South and East Asia just because of relative geographic proximity. Allegations of corruption make a tough sell tougher.
The talk is of unity for Asia after the trials and tribulations of the last few years though all know that such a thing is impossible. At the moment, it is all about deals done behind closed doors and promises for the future. Politics then, not really football, but it was ever thus and East Asia is increasingly good at just one of them.