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May 1, 2013

AFC leadership under the microscope

Mohamed Bin Hammam is Asian football's equivalent to Richard Nixon. The Watergate Scandal of 1974 forced the most powerful man in the world out of office mid-term. Thirty-seven years later and the Qatari's attempt to force the most powerful man in football out of office in the May 2011 FIFA presidential election ended in Sepp Blatter winning the ballot unopposed and Bin Hammam suspended from football for alleged vote-buying and financial irregularities.

Nixon was followed by Gerald Ford, while Bin Hammam's role as the president of the Asian Football Confederation was taken over by Zhang Jilong - two forgettable caretakers who didn't last long. In 1976 Ford was defeated by Jimmy Carter. Zhang chose not to stand for election leaving the Kuala Lumpur hot-seat vacant. It will be filled on Thursday.

Just as Carter won promising to heal wounds in US society still red raw from the Vietnam War, four candidates are fighting it out to try and unite the AFC after two years of political fighting and backbiting.

Despite a mediocre record, Carter would never have heard the expression 'meh', a relatively recent and delightfully annoying way to signal not being impressed. It sums up a fairly mediocre quartet of candidates with their sights set on the prize - Shiekh Salman of Bahrain, UAE's Yousuf Al-Serkal, Saudi Arabia's Hafiz Al Medlej and Worawi Makudi of Thailand.

At least the two front-runners Salman and Al-Serkal have attempted something of a public discourse and made the effort, though not often enough, to set out their plans and vision for the future of the AFC. Al Medlej admitted to this writer that he wasn't even campaigning. The Saudi Arabian was in the race on the urging, he said, of regional politicians and there to step in if the other two could be persuaded to pull out. If not, he promised to withdraw himself. It doesn't say much for the state of Asian football politics when one candidate doesn't even attempt to explain where he stands on any issue yet still believes he is in with a chance of winning.

Such acts reinforce the east Asian view that there are too many pure politicians from the west of the continent interested in power for its own sake. Yet the big powers of the east have only themselves to blame for being stuck on the sidelines once again in Kuala Lumpur. Even senior figures in the Chinese federation admit that they have been derelict in their duty when the only non-west Asian candidate is Worawi Makudi - a man accused of corruption more than once, though never found guilty. Major figures from Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul have in the past been dismissive, disinterested or disinclined to get down and dirty in Asian football politics. There are no east Asian equivalents of young and charismatic figures such as Jordan's Prince Ali Hussein or Hassan Al-Thawadi of Qatar. At least the west Asian leaders take the AFC seriously and are willing to put time in, press flesh and rack up air miles.

Sheikh Salman is the favourite and under the most pressure. There will be another election in 2015 but he won't get a better chance than this. Suave and sophisticated, he has the backing of the influential Olympic Council of Asia, the backing of much of east Asia and has been looking good in south-east Asia too. There isn't a massive amount of enthusiasm around for the candidate but just as the Manchester United team he supports has won a fairly underwhelming Premier League title, if he can get the results, he is not going to care about the manner of victory. Salman has done his homework and the legwork around various continental capitals.

This Bahraini prince is used to getting his own way and does not react well to criticism, but as he is running to become the head of football on the world's largest continent, it should have been expected. Salman has been rightly questioned about the fact that when the Arab Spring reached Manama in February 2011, national team players were arrested and tortured for participating in pro-democracy demonstrations. His claims that politics and sport should be separated are true but when the head of the country's football association is also a member of the ruling royal family, it is not that easy. Attempts to eject a reporter from a press conference in April because he had written about the situation in the past and interviewed said players were troubling, especially from a man who has promised to bring transparency to the AFC.

Al-Serkal is the one man who can stop Salman. A little more low-key than his opponent, the Emirati could be damaged by the fact he was, and is, close to Bin Hammam, though there have been no suggestions that he had any fingers near the till. Laid-back and likeable, the vice-president of the AFC can draw upon two decades of experience and contacts around the continent, though he may come to regret not travelling as much as his rival.

And then there is Worawi Makudi. Even without the numerous accusations of corruption, the Thai would be an outsider. If he thought the fact that he was not west Asian would help him collect votes in the continent's 'neutral' territories then he was mistaken. Not especially popular even in his own backyard, he has campaigned little.

But there are few complaints from the continent's media. Much of it cares little about what happens in Kuala Lumpur, pausing only to moan when something goes against their particular country or region. Parochialism is the order of the day. When it comes to gazing, navels beat the big picture every time. Saudi Arabia wanted to see its guy win - what he may actually do when he got there was very much a secondary issue - and the UAE and Bahrain are no different. Elsewhere, people just don't care that much, until they do. Asian football gets the candidates that it deserves.

It took many years for the American people to start trusting their politicians again after Watergate, that's if they ever have. The new president of the AFC is going to have to try and rebuild trust and unity in a damaged, derided and dysfunctional organisation. And just as he gets going, he will have to start thinking about the next election in less than two years when we get to do this all again. If the victor could at least provide hope that it will be different in 2015, that there will be candidates and campaign that engage and excite Asian fans with realistic visions for the continent's future, that would be a success.

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