There can be little doubt Mohamed Bin Hammam would love to spend his 60th birthday basking in the glow of his achievements and being heralded for the work he has done since taking over as the Asian Football Confederation’s president in August 2002.
Instead, on May 8 in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, the Qatari faces the first serious challenge to his leadership since taking over at the helm of the game in the world’s most populous continent.
The threat is not, directly at least, to Hammam’s position as president of the confederation; after his unopposed re-election in May 2006 he still has another two years to run of his current term.
Rather, it is his seat on FIFA’s executive committee that has come into the firing line. But Hammam himself has raised the stakes in what is shaping up to be a referendum on his time in charge.
Spearheading the challenge is Sheikh Salman Al Khalifa, a member of the Bahrain royal family and president of the tiny Gulf state’s football association, who is campaigning under the “AFC – Asia For Change” banner.
His candidacy has been backed vociferously by, among others, Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad, the president of the Olympic Council of Asia, while former AFC general secretary Peter Velappan has become one of the public faces of the opposition.
At a press conference hosted by Sheikh Ahmad in Kuwait in February, the anti-Hammam lobby claimed to have the support of at least 19 national associations, with that number likely to rise following a round of campaigning by Sheikh Salman throughout the region.
With 46 member associations, only a simple majority is required to win and the battle to unseat Hammam is looking increasingly as if it will be close run. That is because Hammam has done much to alienate many within the confederation in recent years and opposition to his reign has been steadily growing.
When he took over from the ineffective Sultan Ahmad Shah – who was little more than a figurehead president, allowing Velappan to run the confederation on a day-to-day basis – the promise was that Hammam would provide a level of leadership that had previously been lacking.
He implemented his Vision Asia development programme and oversaw the inauguration of the Asian Champions League, giving the regional club game a much-needed shot in the arm.
In addition, he invested money and resources towards enhancing the secretariat as he sought to professionalise the running of the sport in Asia. Along the way, though, the relationship between Hammam and large swathes of the confederation has soured.
The East Asians, led by South Korea’s Chung Mong-joon, were among the first to raise questions about Hammam’s ability to run the confederation although, given the Qatari’s long-standing support for Sepp Blatter, the animosity from Chung hardly comes as a surprise.
Meanwhile, Hammam’s move to bring Australia into the confederation at the start of 2002 has alienated many in the west of the continent – where his original power base lay.
On top of that, his very public attempt to shift the confederation’s headquarters away from its current base in Malaysia late last year has played a major role in turning member nations in South East Asia against him; and the revamping of the Asian Champions League has irked many smaller members, most of whom have been excluded from the competition.
“The allocation of income increases this year for the AFC are only for the Asian Champions League, not on development, or grass roots, women’s football, futsal or for the associations from smaller countries,” says one insider.
“The small countries are complaining. The competition’s format is very, very focused on the big countries. The AFC is not taking care of the smaller countries and they don’t like it.
“The AFC is a dictatorship. Hammam controls everything. There is no need for a general secretary or department directors. The organisation isn’t working well because it is just Hammam and then the staff. He can’t decide on everything.”
Hammam remains confident he will retain his seat, but he has increased the pressure on himself and everyone concerned by threatening to stand down from his position as president should he lose.
In an attempt to defend his position, he has tabled a proposal to be voted on at the Congress that only those who have served a full four-year term on the AFC executive committee can stand for election to the FIFA decision-making body or for the role of president of the confederation.
Should that proposal be passed, Sheikh Salman’s bid to stand against Hammam would fall at the first hurdle.
But, with 75 percent of votes needed to push the motion through, it is unlikely to be agreed, leaving the two to go head-to-head in what has become an increasingly bitter battle that has brought the divisions within the Asian game to a very public head.
By Michael Church