Bin Hamman vows to fight
"I hope it's a clean election unlike what happened in 1994."
The words come from Mohamed Bin Hammam, who sits across from me with a steely expression in the executive conference room at AFC House in Kuala Lumpur.
The president of the Asian Football Confederation is known as a fighter and he faces one of the battles of his long career - reportedly masterminded by South Korean arch-rival Chung Mong Joon - to hold onto power at the AFC Congress on May 8.
Asian football chiefs will vote on Bin Hammam's seat on the FIFA executive committee. If he loses, the Qatari businessman has vowed to step down as AFC President, a position he's held since 2002.
Along with Bin Hammam, Dr. Chung is one of four Asians on world football's executive committee. But only the AFC President's FIFA position is up for election this year.
Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa, of Bahrain, has put himself forward as a candidate for the FIFA post. But despite claims to the contrary, Bin Hammam believes that Sheikh Salman is a puppet in a scheme devised by Dr. Chung and backed by the powerful East Asian bloc.
"I cannot say that this is a conspiracy… it is an election," Bin Hamman told ESPN Soccernet. "But when you are a colleague of mine on the executive committee of FIFA and you want to eliminate me and bring in somebody else, I have to ask myself: 'Why?'"
The divisions between Bin Hamman and Dr. Chung run deep and can be traced back 15 years to the 1994 elections that saw the former boss of Korean football elected onto FIFA for the first time.
According to one source, Peter Velappan, who was AFC General Secretary at the time, stopped the voting and ordered a re-count - which allegedly may have been less than accurate - allowing Dr. Chung to be elected.
Bin Hammam declined to go into details about the 1994 election but did say: "A lot of not very good things happened. It was one of the worst elections. I hope that the same is not going to happen again."
The AFC Congress will vote on the second Friday in May, which is also Bin Hammam's 60th birthday. But he has no desire to wind down his ambitious presidency during which he's raised the global profile and standard of Asian football but alienated some rivals with his no-nonsense style.
Among his recent achievements was the lavish re-launch of the AFC Champions League with an expanded format and a five-time increase in prize money, despite the global recession.
"Before I joined FIFA, the Asian voice was never heard internationally," he said. "The AFC opinion was taken for granted and nobody was consulting us. It is only when I came to the AFC and FIFA that the Asian voice was heard."
Mention Dr. Chung's name and it's a sure way to get the normally soft-spoken Bin Hammam riled. Last month, Dr. Chung was promising to complain to football's international ethics committee over the AFC boss' remarks that were translated from Arabic as a threat to "cut off the head" of a South Korean official.
Bin Hammam brushed off the claims: "I said something about limiting the capability of some person. Languages are rich enough to have different (non-literal) meanings. It's the same kind of thing when you say 'break a leg' in English."
According to Bin Hammam, Dr. Chung's power plays are aimed at eliminating him to ultimately position himself for a run at the FIFA presidency.
"I believe that his agenda is always a personal agenda or his country's and federation's agenda. He has never thought beyond his own interests," Bin Hammam said.
"So why do you want to change me? My performance is one thousand times better than your performance in FIFA. You know I am respected one thousand times more than you are respected. Football in Asia has been taken good care of by my presence in FIFA."
Impressed by the nation's sporting prowess and professionalism, Bin Hammam has been a big supporter of football in Australia and strongly backed its entry into the Asian Confederation in 2006. If he were to lose his grip on power, it might be a setback for the nation's 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids. Some have suggested Australia could even be booted out of the AFC under a new leadership.
The Aussies will be firmly behind Bin Hammam in the May 8 poll that will see the AFC's 46 affiliated football associations cast their votes.
"The Asian Football Confederation has made significant progress under Mohamed Bin Hamman, including a more professional AFC Champions League," FFA chief Ben Buckley told ESPN Soccernet. "His 'Vision Asia' is also delivering real benefits to countries and people who need it."
Bin Hamman isn't contemplating defeat and is expecting to win a majority of at least 30 votes: "Frankly speaking, I am quite confident, you know," he said. "I have a lot of faith and trust in the member associations for whom I have worked now more than six years as president of the AFC.
"I feel that democracy is alive in the AFC... that's what I feel."
The democratic process is indeed alive and well, with interesting times ahead in the corridors of power in Kuala Lumpur.
• Australian-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.