Friday, May 8, is a crucial day for Asian football. That is when the 46 members of the AFC are presented with a rare opportunity to vote for significant change – not only within the Asian confederation but within the world game.

Facing serious, open opposition for the first time is Mohamed Bin Hammam, Qatari president of the AFC since 2002, a member of the FIFA executive and a significant influence in elevating Sepp Blatter into the FIFA presidency in 1998.

Challenging Bin Hammam’s role as West Asia’s FIFA executive member at AFC Congress in Kuala Lumpur is Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim al-Khalifah, president of the Bahrain Football Association. Friday’s vote will be the culmination of one of the most bitter election duels world football has seen in years.

Sheikh Salman has accused Bin Hammam of a string of leadership blunders and of responding with a mixture of personal insult and political manoeuvre. Bin Hammam has said he will quit as AFC president if he loses on Friday.

A personal issue exploded when Bin Hammam warned Chung Mong-joon – head of the antagonistic South Korean federation and a fellow FIFA executive member – that he would ‘cut the head off.’ Bin Hammam later claimed this was a joke but the damage had been done.

On the political front Bin Hammam has sought to debar Salman supporters Laos, East Timor, Afghanistan and Mongolia from voting on the grounds that they have not entered enough age-group tournaments to participate. FIFA’s legal department has rejected both this threat and a complaint over the status of the Kuwait FA. Whether Bin Hammam will take any notice remains unclear.

In this exclusive interview, Sheikh Salman explained [to KEIR RADNEDGE] why he is standing against Bin Hammam and what he hopes to achieve:

Firstly, why are you contesting the elections?
Sheikh Salman: I want to change the complexion of Asian football by raising the standard of its game. I want to make Asian football more attractive, more marketable and more acceptable to the world. To make Asian football a hub in its own right and not a retirement home for ageing European stars.

What are your policies?
My intention is to change the AFC management and how it is run and do things in a different way. All members of the Asian football family should be treated equally. We don’t have that.

A lot of our national associations do not get the same support as others. I don’t know why. We are talking about issues such as financial support, technical support, education and training. We want to provide development programmes in every sphere.

For example, India and Pakistan have huge populations and football there needs to be developed; there is enormous potential – and India and Pakistan are two of many examples. We need a clear plan and so far, in my opinion, we don‚t know where we are going.

In the past there has been a lot of talk and a lot of plans, such as Vision Asia and so on, but nothing has come of any of it. It’s been a lot of talk and no action.

FIFA has many excellent development and education programmes and we need similar programmes in Asia which complement all that work. We need a clear vision on how we develop the game in our own region.

Why are you opposing Mohamed Bin Hammam?
I don’t oppose Bin Hammam. He is a friend and has been for a very long time. I only oppose what he advocates, which has been a form of dictatorship in his administration, a misuse of funds, breaching FIFA and AFC Statutes and causing divisions within Asian football by reducing the powers of the big guys such as Korea, Japan, and so on.

A lot of issues have been controversial. For example, the proposal to move the headquarters of the AFC from Kuala Lumpur, staging the Asian Cup in four countries, the way of managing the AFC. A lot of countries have been disappointed.

Bahrain has supported Bin Hammam for 11 years but things are being done in the wrong way so we are having to make a fight. As an AFC member association we have the right to judge what has been happening. This is democratic. It’s nothing personal.

Are you concerned about the effect of this civil war‚ on Asian football as a whole?
I don’t think you can call it a civil war. This is what true democracy is all about when one individual is challenging another for a post because he believes he can do better.

It’s a challenge. Asia is an enormous continent and has to contend with many difficulties in terms of time zones, climate and distances. Two thirds of the world’s population lives on this continent but that also means there is a lot of potential in terms of marketing rights. Japan is the by far the biggest contributing nation not only in the AFC but in FIFA.

What do you think you can bring to the wider world of football through working within FIFA?
As I said, I want to make Asian football a place where players from all over the world can ply their trade while they are still in their prime. I see it as becoming an alternative to Europe. I want to make Asian leagues as competitive as European leagues.

Bin Hammam is a well-known supporter of FIFA president Sepp Blatter; is this a problem for you?
I don’t see that as a problem and I don’t believe the FIFA president has a particular preference. I also believe Asia is ready for change and I am the agent of that change, which I’m sure Mr Blatter can appreciate.

Where does bringing the World Cup to Asia – presumably in 2022 if 2018 goes to Europe, as expected – feature in all of this?
It’s an important target, a goal we want to be best placed to achieve. The first World Cup in Asia, in 2002 in Japan and Korea, was a huge success and I’m sure the second will be and will have a very positive effect on the development of footall in Asia. South Korea reached the semi-finals in 2002 showing how successful it can be.

I’m confident. We have good relations with many other countries within FIFA who can provide support. It’s achievable. We have five bids registered at the moment and then Asia will have to pick one candidate with the best chance. It’s up to us and important that the executive members should be united in choosing the right one.

Are you in favour of an ultimate division between East and West Asia?
Of course not. My agenda is uniting people, not dividing nations and legions. That’s not what football is all about.

How do you rate your chances of victory on May 8?
I believe many countries also want change and will support me. I’m very optimistic.

The contenders
Mohamed Bin Hammam (born May 8, 1949 in Qatar) has been president of the Asian Football Confederation since August 2002 and his term of office is not due to expire until 2011. His reign has included the creation and expansion of the AFC Champions League and the arrival of Australia into the Asian football family. He launched the development programme Vision Asia and has has been a FIFA executive member since 1996.

Shaikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa (born November 2, 1965), a member of the Bahrain royal family, is president of the domestic football association, chairman of the AFC disciplinary committee and was deputy chairman of the FIFA disciplinary committee at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

Interview alliance: Sports Features Communications