Survivor AFC-style: Bin Hammam hangs on
In the end, the 2009 AFC Congress proved that Mohamed bin Hammam is one of football's great survivors.
Confronted with the biggest challenge of his seven year Asian presidency, bin Hammam faced off against a formidable rival, endured a barrage of personal abuse and saw many of his closest allies turn against him before squeaking home by two votes to hold onto his FIFA seat.
''My best friends let me down,'' bin Hammam told ESPN Soccernet, with a hint of sadness. ''But other people came from everywhere to support me and lift me up when I was feeling demoralized.''
Before the drama of the AFC Congress unfolded in Kuala Lumpur, many of Asia's 46 football nations were still weighing up their options, but the word was out that the sport's two most powerful men - FIFA President Sepp Blatter and UEFA chief Michel Platini - were firmly behind Bahraini challenger Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa.
On the surface, Platini was a distant and peripheral figure during Asia's big moment in the spotlight that came after the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League. ''I have no comment to make about this election,'' Platini said. ''This region has nothing to do with me.''
But, according to Congress insiders, the Frenchman had plenty to gain if bin Hamman were toppled in the vote. The Qatari had pledged to step down as AFC President if he'd failed to hold onto the FIFA Executive Committee seat for West Asia he'd held since 1996.
''Bin Hammam is viewed as the one big threat to Platini becoming the next FIFA President,'' a source said. ''Both Platini and Blatter saw this as an opportunity to get rid of bin Hammam.''
Publicly though, Blatter was doing his best to be seen as supporting the status quo, cheerfully passing on birthday greetings to the AFC boss from former FIFA President Joao Havelange, who turned 93 on May 8th, the same date as bin Hammam's 60th and the Congress.
The day before the election, as the cameras clicked and flashed, Blatter and bin Hamman made a grand entrance together into the plush Mandarin Oriental Hotel, venue for the Congress. Just a few metres away, Sheikh Salman was sitting down for a private coffee in the hotel restaurant with Football Federation Australia chairman, Frank Lowy.
Later that evening, Blatter sat between bin Hammam and his fiercest rival Dr. Chung Mong-joon, of the Korea Republic, on the VIP table at the gala dinner as the guests ate Lobster Bisque and Prawn Mango Salad, sipped non-alcoholic fruit drinks and politely watched performances by Malaysian musicians Joanne Yeoh and Noryn Aziz at the JW Marriott Hotel.
At an earlier press conference before a stunned Asian media, Dr. Chung said that his FIFA Executive Committee colleague had ''mental problems'' that needed hospital treatment and was acting ''like a criminal''.
In and out of the Grand Ballroom, the AFC Congress provided great theatre, whether it was to watch the uneasy body language between bin Hammam and Dr. Chung or see Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, the head of the Kuwait FA, in action.
The Kuwaitis, big supporters and, some would say, the driving force behind Sheikh Salman's bid, were finally granted their voting rights on the morning of the Congress - along with Afghanistan, Brunei, Laos, Mongolia and East Timor - after earlier being excluded for falling foul of AFC regulations.
Given his voice, Sheikh Ahmad more than made the most of it. Three times the burly Kuwaiti president, in his flowing white robes, made the long walk from his seat to the stage, arriving breathless at the microphone: ''I need to be in better fitness to go and come like this,'' he said to the chuckling crowd before his tone turned serious as he questioned how bin Hammam was spending the AFC's money.
On his fourth attempt to speak, the AFC boss quickly shut him down: ''You've already taken the floor so many times already,'' he said. Sheikh Ahmad is also president of the Olympic Council of Asia, a non-football group that was throwing considerable resources behind the challenger's camp. Visiting supporters wore smart polo-shirts, embroidered with the message: ''Asian: A New Beginning''.
What may have helped swing things in bin Hammam's favour was his decision to scrap the widely unpopular vote on relocating the AFC's headquarters, which effectively assures its future in Kuala Lumpur. By hastily eliminating item-13 on the Congress' agenda to enthusiastic applause, bin Hammam may have earned himself a lucky break. Whether it was his previous day's meeting with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak that turned the tide, or just an expedient, political move, we'll never know.
''For many delegates, his idea of shifting Asia's base away from Malaysia was simply the last straw,'' said an AFC insider. Even so, bin Hammam had to fight all the way in a nail-biting poll that had parallels with the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election between George W Bush and Al Gore.
An earlier vote during the Congress to pass the AFC budget for the next four years provided an inkling that bin Hammam may have had the numbers to survive.
There were no Florida hanging chads, but the AFC count had its own drama with two delegates turning in spoiled or invalid votes. With 44 instead of 46 nations counted, Bin Hammam claimed the smallest possible majority 23-21.
Overseeing the elections were a Swiss notary and lawyer, who were brought to Malaysia by Blatter to ensure there would be no irregularities.
''The difference was just one voter,'' said the loser, Sheikh Salman whose polished and dignified performance suggested that he could one day have much more than just his 15 minutes of fame in world football. ''It sent a clear message that so many countries are not happy and things need to be done. But now we must turn the page and move on.''
Among the nations that called for change in the Congress was tiny Guam - FIFA ranking 188 - which claimed that not enough AFC money was going towards grassroots development.
''I'm sure the President got the message that some of the methods and some of the policies need to be improved so in the future he'll get more support,'' said Guam Football Association President, Richard Lai. ''Asia still has many poverty countries and we need to close the gap.''
Australian officials, pushing for full AFC support in their 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids, were strangely silent, perhaps not wanting to address the rumour that they had made a late shift to the Sheikh Salman camp.
Despite having earlier agreed to grant interviews at the end of the Congress, Football Federation Australia CEO Ben Buckley would only say: ''We'll be issuing a statement shortly'' (an e-mailed press release) as he scurried past four members of the Australian media - all football specialists with waiting cameras and microphones - who had travelled great distances and had been waiting almost two days to speak to him.
One wonders why the prospect of a few short questions from a small group of Australian ''soccer tragics'' had the FFA boss ducking for cover.
Socceroo interests will be served better by the victory from bin Hammam, an unabashed supporter of the Aussies who was instrumental in their move from Oceania to Asia three years ago.
Sheikh Salman's Kuwaiti ally, Sheikh Ahmad, had been widely quoted in the Arabic press with his view that in the post-bin Hammam era Australia should be booted out of the AFC even quicker than they were allowed in.
Post-Congress, returning to normal will be easier said than done for the AFC as earnest calls for ''fair play'' at the election went out the window. In footballing terms, this was a Cup final with four red cards, half a dozen yellows and a raft of injuries.
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.