AFC chief warms to Premier League's 39th game
The Premier League's 39th game proposal could yet be revived after Asian Football Confederation president Mohamed bin Hammam, one of the fiercest critics of the controversial suggestion, altered his stance on the matter and called on the league to ''share the secrets of their success.''
In February the Premier League floated the idea of an international round of matches in five cities across the world from 2011 but were forced to shelve the plans amid widespread condemnation from fans and various sporting authorities, including FIFA and Bin Hammam's AFC.
However, in a dramatic volteface Bin Hammam, a member of FIFA's influential executive committee, told the BBC: "It is now up to them, if they want to present fresh plans. I am willing to listen and give my advice."
Bin Hammam's comments came on Thursday ahead of a meeting with Premier League officials over a way forward for the overseas plan, which earlier this week chief executive Richard Scudamore said is ''still there, being discussed and considered with the clubs''.
Earlier this year, Bin Hammam ordered Manchester United, the English and European champions, to cancel their summer tour because it clashed with the Asian Cup finals and he did not want anything to detract from the regional competition.
However, the 60-year-old feels if a competitive Premier League game were to take place in the region, it would have to be for the right reasons and not simply done as a money-making or marketing scheme.
''I am going to witness a presentation about what the Premier League can do to help football in Asia and around the world. We should be partners and know what is the benefit for us,'' said Bin Hammam.
''I want all the technical assistance they can provide. We want them to convey their experiences to us. We want them to share with us their secret of success, to tell us what are the keys that can help our football, by showing us administration, technical level and supporting our coaches.
''One way is if they support our initiatives to develop the game across Asia and close the gap between Asia and European football. This is quite a convincing argument to us.''
Bin Hammam added: ''I know some people will think financial assistance can be part of a deal, but I am not welcoming that. Any assistance has to go to providing coaching, workshops and offering their academies to the young people.
''Until now, no Asian referees can take part in European football, even in the third level. By bringing our officials into that environment, these are things which will benefit us. There can be financial assistance - but we must teach the people how to fish and survive for life and not just give them the fish.''
The AFC are currently in the process of revamping some 22 leagues across the confederation, with 10 - Australia, Japan, China, South Korea, Singapore, India, Iran, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar - targeted to be made more commercially viable and with higher attendances by 2012, while the AFC Champions League competition is to be expanded to 32 clubs from next year.
Bin Hammam hopes the growing influence of English top-flight football in the region can have a lasting, positive effect - provided it is channelled in the right way.
He said: ''There is too much foreign football on our continent, but I am a big fan of the Premier League and I was really impressed with the way they are developing their thoughts about developing the game in Asia.
''In the past there were no ideas, but now they know people want something left behind and they are up to the mark. Whatever plans the Premier League has for its future the AFC is ready to advise and support.''
Bin Hammam, though, feels there are still many hurdles to overcome before the dream of a Premier League game being played within the confederation moves closer to reality.
''The moment some leagues are going to be played outside their territories, it is shocking news. You just want to digest it,'' he said. ''To see the English league played in China or wherever is strange. A lot of people in the confederation like the idea because they haven't thought about it from the same angle as me.
''I am not saying I have changed my mind totally, but they are exploring ideas. They haven't decided anything, they were just discussing things. There was a time when they came to us to ask if we would welcome them and we talked the idea out.''
However, Bin Hammam stressed: ''What does worry me and makes me nervous is because the TV channels are willing to pay these huge amounts to show the Premier League and not to broadcast their local leagues.
''That is a worry, not fans attaching themselves to the Premier League. But unless our congress gives us the power to prevent such actions [as the 39th game], then I don't think we can do anything.
''I am depending more on the understanding of the Premier League chairman. I want them to see that we are legitimate partners.''
Bin Hammam will attend a reception on Thursday, along with British Council Chair Lord Neil Kinnock, at which the Premier League will launch a series of international good cause projects.
These include the Premier Skills coaching project, a partnership between the Premier League and British Council, to a number of cities and regions across Africa, India, China and South East Asia.
The week-long courses train aspiring sports coaches and youth leaders to return to their own communities and enhance their existing football sessions, while also developing their leadership skills and a greater understanding of the role football can play in tackling other social issues.
Premier League chief executive Scudamore said: ''At home the Premier League and our clubs have a long-held commitment to and reputation for investing in and delivering quality community and education programmes.
''Given our increasing popularity and success internationally we felt it only right to replicate this approach on a global scale. It is important that we use our profile responsibly to encourage and engage communities around the world.
''A number of our clubs have well established partnerships with international charities that see the clubs and players use the power of football for good.''