Tomorrow, in Goa, the powers-that-be in Asian football will send out a clear message about their priorities. Are they trapped by a fixation on their own internal politics and power games or do they want to play – and be seen playing – a serious role in shaping the world game moving forward?
Goa, on the Arabian Sea in western India, will be the scene of an extraordinary election congress organised by the Asian Football Confederation. Two elections will take place: the one will send two extra men to the expanded FIFA Council, the other will choose one specific female representative.
For far too long – even the banned and disgraced Sepp Blatter recognised this – the governing councils of international and national football had been exclusively male preserves. This is changing. Very slowly. Very gradually. One fascinating signpost is the kickoff later this week to Jordan’s hosting of the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup.
The AFC, interestingly, was one of the first confederations to respond to the demand for reform by creating a vice-presidency for a woman.
Unfortunately, one of the first acts of Bahrain’s Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa on winning the presidency in 2013, was to scrap that female vice-presidency in the interests of a structural reorganisation. The bargain chip was that every region had to send a woman on to the executive committee.
The argument about the validity of quotas is a familiar one and needs no repetition here.
As Australian Moya Dodd has recognised, without the introduction of quotas (by Mohamed bin Hammam, during his presidency, be it noted) she would not have attained that AFC vice-president (now former) and become one of the original co-opted members of the FIFA executive committee.
Dodd has seized the stage to press the case for diversity in general and women’s rights in particular throughout international football. Indeed, her profile within the world game is far higher than many of the AFC’s senior (male) officials might wish to acknowledge. Or even appreciate.
Certainly they do not all thank her for it. Hence she is among three candidates who, in Goa, will be chasing the one Asian female slot in the FIFA Council. Challenging her are Mahfuza Ahkter from Bangladesh and Han Un Gyong of North Korea.
Of course, the perspective from FIFA-quartered western Europe is very different to the views and perceptions from the Far East, south-east Asia and the politically-complex Middle East including the Gulf states.
The latter bear their own fragile concerns about who may reach out for the levers of power, their nationality and culture while the bitter fall-out from Qatar’s 2022 World Cup hosting victory continues to reverberate down the corridors of power.
Mahfuza Ahkter and Han Un Gyong, to all intents and purposes, have made no effort to reach out beyond the Asian football constituency. That is their right, their campaigning judgment calls. That strategy could pay off for either one.
Sheikh Salman, however, did reach out beyond Asia in standing for the FIFA presidency last February. So did Prince Ali of Jordan in both 2015 and again this past spring. Rivals though they were, they both placed Asian football at the centre of the debate about the future of the world game and its governance.
The AFC and the Asian game gained kudos for it.
Otherwise football’s most populous confederation has punched below its weight for far too long, burdened by the massive hindrance of its own internecine rivalries. Will tomorrow’s election speak of relevance or retreat?
One man who knows the value of Asia as a platform for influence on the greater stage of world sport is Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah; he is not only a (comparatively new) member of the FIFA Council but has long held a multiplicity of Olympic presidencies.
If he and his fellow power-brokers want Asia to step out effectively on the world stage in football as in sport in general then – whatever their continuing qualms about Australia’s presence in the Asian family football – the beneficiary of their election support should be clear.
Progress and profile go hand in hand. But it’s all a matter of the AFC’s priorities right now.