Asia's rising star
He's the most powerful man in Asian football, and one day, could rule the world.
AFC President Mohamed Bin Hammam sits across from me in the executive committee room at the confederation's immaculate headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, speaking about a grand vision that includes revamping the AFC Champions League to compete with Europe within a decade.
He's held Asia's top job since August 2002 and as a FIFA Executive Member for more than a dozen years, seems ideally placed to move up within the world's governing body.
If his good friend, Sepp Blatter, steps down as FIFA President, as some predict, in 2011, at the end of his four-year term, the ambitious and capable Bin Hammam would seem to be a front-runner to take over.
"A lot will depend on Blatter's support," a FIFA source told me. "He's close to both Bin Hammam and (UEFA boss) Michel Platini so it will be interesting to see which way he'll go."
While Bin Hamman is well known within his region, his name barely registers in other parts of the world, outside of footballing circles. But in 2004, before Blatter announced his intention to run for a third presidential term, the Qatari-born businessmen, who speaks fluent Arabic, English and French, took steps to broaden his global image, with a public relations offensive that included interviews in the UK.
"When he first started in the job, he wasn't so confident in dealing with journalists from around the world once the cameras were turned on," the FIFA source said. "But after going through media training and having a few years in the job, he's become a lot better."
As proof of the importance that he puts on public speaking and presentation, Bin Hammam has introduced a voluntary Toastmasters meeting for his staff, every Monday night at AFC House. For now, Bin Hammam plays down any talk of going for the FIFA presidency, saying that he has enough to keep him busy in Asia and that he intends to continue in his current role beyond 2011. But his aspirations for the post are believed to be bubbling beneath the surface. His track record in Asia is impressive. During his six years as president, Bin Hammam has overseen major changes, including the introduction in 2003 of Vision Asia, a continent-wide programme to lift the standard of football at all levels and Project Future, which nurtures budding coaches and match officials, many from developing countries.
The first season of the AFC Champions League in 2002/2003 marked the start of his tenure. And in 2009, it will see an expanded version with 32 teams, five times the prize money at £13 million and a one-off final at a neutral venue (which will be Tokyo next year).
And he also oversaw the much-touted addition of Australia to the AFC in 2005 after decades of dominating tiny Oceania; but not developing as a football nation.
"Letting Australia in was more than just money because there are already much bigger markets in Asia," an AFC insider told me. "He likes the energy and the professionalism that the Aussies bring and loves Australia as a country."
Bin Hammam has watched with satisfaction the steady growth of the A-League since its inception in 2005 and travelled down to Australia in mid-November when Adelaide United were surprise finalists in the AFC Champions League against Japan's Gamba Osaka.
He raised eyebrows during that trip by underlining a series of tough AFC directives for the A-League's future, including the phasing out of New Zealand side Wellington Phoenix by 2011 and a promotion and relegation system between two divisions. He also flagged the plan of an extra import from Asia in addition to the current three foreigners per club.
"Football Federation Australia has known about the Wellington situation all along," another AFC staffer told me. "We don't know why everyone out there is acting as if it's such a big surprise."
Freshly back in Kuala Lumpur after last week's AFC Executive meetings in Shanghai, the President is wearing a black collarless shirt with the name Bin Hammam embroidered on the breast pocket and is razor sharp with his softly spoken views. He talks exclusively to ESPNsoccernet in the first of a two-part series about bridging the gap with Europe, Australia's impact on Asia and the possibility of one day taking over as FIFA President.
Q: The expansion of the AFC Champions League is very ambitious. How long will it take for Asia's version to compare to the UEFA Champions League?
A: I give it 10 years. We've set up professional criteria for the clubs involved where we insist they have a company structure with very strict criteria. When they started, a lot of the clubs were never meant to be professional. Now we have clubs with owners that are companies and amateurism is changing to professionalism. Most of the officials of the clubs have been part-timers but that is changing too.
But what can you do to bridge the big gap between the huge level of interest in Asia in European leagues like the Premier League and Asian competitions?
There are 53 national associations in Europe but I can count only five or six of their leagues that are popular around the world. Many of our leagues are already more popular than more than half of Europe's. Now that we are professionalizing the clubs across Asia we need to recruit the big players, offer them the same salary, the same benefits, the same advantages and same environment as they could get elsewhere. I would like to see that within these 10 years not only the best Asian players come back to play within Asia but also that the best players from other confederations. We are supported by a strong economy, have a 3.9 billion population and most of them are football fans. I would love to see Ronaldo playing in Asia or Ronaldinho joining Sydney FC.
What is the latest on your discussions with Football Federation Australia about Wellington Phoenix's future in the A-League?
For a New Zealand team to be playing (in the A-League) from outside the territory of an AFC member, Australia was given special permission from FIFA's committee and were provided with this permission until the year 2011.
Our criteria insists that all clubs are from the territory of the federation. They must be registered under the commercial law of the same country. We don't allow outside clubs to be part of that league. But considering that this club already has this permission from FIFA we presume they are also committed commercially, with their sponsors, TV rights holders and so on. We don't want to break that and we want to protect that league so we put that in our consideration. We allow them to participate for now in Australia. But it will only be until 2011 after which either this club must definitely disappear or they'll re-register themselves in Australia as an Australian club under the law of Australia. That would mean that all New Zealand players would be treated as foreigners so they would only be able to have three New Zealanders playing.
And if Wellington won the title (before 2011), or were runner's up, they could not participate in the AFC's competition. That's very clear.
Is there any flexibility in this?
Absolutely not, absolutely not.
What are your impressions of the A-League, four seasons in?
Very good. Very impressed. It's something like number 15 in the world in terms of popularity and attendance. This environment is very healthy. There are huge numbers of good (Australian) players, playing in Europe. I hope that the popularity of the game now will bring most of them back home. If it happens, the game will have a further boost. It is also open for them to have one Asian player in their A-League squads in addition to the three foreigners. I hope there will be opposite immigration to Asia.
How has Australia's entry to the AFC and the establishment of the A-League been different to your expectations?
The people behind the move to Asia made the right move. They wanted to popularize their football. They knew unless there were competitive matches and a competitive league they wouldn't succeed in terms of attracting the fans, sponsors and TV. I hope what they expected they got.
What would you say about Australia's impact on Asia and the AFC since joining in 2005?
It has reshaped the image of AFC competitions. It has made an impact that is more than physical or material. The AFC image has been increased. Australia has joined Japan, the Korean Republic, Saudi Arabia as the elite countries in Asia. It has opened a market for us to recruit professional players, coaches and referees. The professionalism in Australia is very advanced. I'm very happy with the impact and it means that TV, sponsors and so on are open for our competitions. We'll have more sponsors from Australia so it is positive.
How surprised were you at Adelaide United's progression to AFC Final?
I don't think they surprised me. Any team from those 14 countries participating in the Champions League could have made it and, in my opinion, had the chance to be champions. We selected them based on their technical standards. And also how much they're able to recruit talented players, foreign players. And how far they can go to build the environment around the players and inspire them to win.
NEXT WEEK: PART 2 - THE MAN BEHIND THE PRESIDENCY
• Sydney-born Jason Dasey ( www.jasondasey.com ) is an international broadcaster and corporate host. He covered the 2006 World Cup and 2007 Asian Cup for ESPN.