The dust has settled, the stories have been filed (read my in depth take on the AFC election in the next issue of The Blizzard, which is due out the first week in June), the jetlag over. So what did a few days in Malaysia earlier this month - at the AFC Congress and the confederation’s elections - tell us about the state of Asian football, and football politics?
1/ Anything goes if you’re not Mohamed Bin Hammam (or one of his friends)
Serious and unresolved questions remain about Sheikh Salman’s alleged role in human rights violations in his native Bahrain. Salman has stopped short of an outright denial, merely calling on his critics to provide proof and blandly saying he has violated no statutes. (Actually, if the allegations are true he’s violated all manner of FIFA and AFC statutes). Remarkably - no, unbelievably - this was scarcely an issue in the election. Yousuf al-Serkal, who has never faced any allegations of impropriety but is a personal friend of Mohamed Bin Hammam, was seen as the man who needed to be stopped because of his links to the Qatari.
Observers, who frankly should have known better, suggested that it was okay to overlook these alleged transgressions because the Bahraini wasn’t linked with the tainted Bin Hammam and would be a bulwark against Qatari dominance in Asian football. Maybe there’s a case for this, but such a blinkered outlook reveals all that is wrong and myopic in global football governance.
Bin Hammam was accused of a lot of things in his time, but human rights violations was never one of them.
2/ Blatter may go on and on
Much has been read into the FIFA president’s Freudian slip when he told Congress with a laugh “This is the last term, not of office, but of reform.” It was meant to be a barb at Michel Platini (who had gone home at that stage), it was meant to be a testing of the water, it was meant to be so many things.
Actually what had happened was more prosaic. An old man dropped his prompt cards, didn’t recover and went hopelessly off message. Blatter was digressing wildly through his address to the AFC Congress, like an eccentric, slightly tipsy old uncle at a family wedding. I’m sure his advisors despaired.
Afterwards the press got no more than a muttered sentence in the whirlwind that encircled him (oddly, given that his silence was supposed to be due to political sensitivity ahead of a crucial FIFA Congress, he found time to give an interview to L’Equipe on his return to Europe).
I hadn’t seen Blatter in the flesh since 2011. At 77 he seemed slightly more stooped, but he was still the same old Sepp; cunning, ebullient, sly. I’ve always maintained the mantra that we should expect anything from the old man, and I wouldn’t rule out another run at the presidency in two years time.
3/ This wasn’t about football
I don’t recall any of the presidential candidates actually talking about the game itself. When my colleague, Mani Djzami, asked the victorious Sheikh Salman who the current Asian Champions League holders were, there was an agonising silence… before he came out with the right answer. (To our surprise, it must be said). Indeed the closest notion that we had that anyone was really interested in football was the sight of exhausted electoral teams, who’d sat up through the night to watch the Champions League semi finals.
But this wasn’t about football. It was about regional West Asian rivalries, expunging the ghost of Bin Hammam and power for the sake of power.
4/ Where were the footballers?
Do any Asian footballers (or at least former players) have any significant say in the running of their confederation? It’s an accusation commonly levelled at governing bodies, but elsewhere in the world you do have some notion that footballers are represented. Here we had Michel Platini and Angel Maria Villar Llona representing UEFA. Bora Milutunovic was part of the huge Qatari delegation. But where were the Asian players? The AFC vice president, Moya Dodd, who played for Australia’s Matildas, was the only one that I encountered. Surely the AFC should be seeking greater player representation?
5/ Asian football isn’t a hopeless case
There was much to be cynical about, but also some hope. For some delegates, who lack proper democracy in their own countries, this was clearly the closest they get to electoral politics and they were relishing their moment. There were others for whom this was just a gravy train.
But there were also plenty of very talented, very committed people there, who love football and want to see the game develop and improve. People who worked for the candidates, people who represent federations, AFC staffers, AFC exco members, people with aspirations for a seat on the FIFA Exco; all left a positive impression.
Football politics is changing rapidly. There are still worms in the fruit, but it is no longer rotten to the core. A new generation is emerging, for whom the nepotism, cynicism and corruption we once witnessed in abundance will hopefully be anathema.
Posted on Sunday, May 19th 2013