Mohamed Bin Hammam survived an acrimonious challenge in an election which exposed the bitter divisions in Asian football

By Michael Church
Two votes were all that stood between Asian football and a major political crisis as the confederation’s president, Mohamed Bin Hammam, retained his seat on FIFA’s executive committee.

Hammam, the incumbent, held off the challenge of Bahrain’s Sheikh Salman Al Khalifa to win a hugely divisive election by 23 votes to 21, with two of the 46 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) member nations spoiling their ballot papers.

“I would like to thank you all for conducting the perfect election,” Hammam told delegates after his win at the AFC congress in Kuala Lumpur. “You have really shown the world the meaning of democracy. For that reason I would like to congratulate each and every one of you. It was really a very close competition.”

After a bitter and very public campaign to discredit Hammam’s seven-year reign at the head of the AFC, the Qatari clung on to not only keep his place on the game’s decision-making council but to stay in control of the regional body.

The opposition had turned the vote into a referendum on Hammam’s time in charge of the confederation and, as a result, the 60-year-old had threatened to stand down should he be defeated.

With the heavyweights of Asian football lining up against him – Japan, South Korea, China and Saudi Arabia were all in the anti-Hammam camp – the outcome was always going to be extremely close.

And though the margin of Hammam’s victory should have been greater – the two spoilt votes were both cast for him – the appearance now is of a continent more deeply divided than ever.

Hammam, however, has proven himself to be a true survivor after holding off the challenge from Sheikh Salman, whose campaign was spearheaded by a well-orchestrated opposition.

The Bahraini prince’s campaign was backed – some would say hijacked – by the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), who brought almost their entire staff from its base in Kuwait to lobby for votes, while Sheikh Salman also had the very vociferous support of FIFA vice-president Dr Chung Mong-joon.

Former AFC general secretary Peter Velappan, the face of Asian football for almost three decades, added his voice to the anti-Hammam drive.

The charges laid against Hammam were numerous, with anger growing at his desire to move the confederation away from its traditional base of Malaysia, through to attempts to block Kuwait, Laos, East Timor, Mongolia, Afghanistan and Brunei from voting in the election.

Hammam was labelled “a dictator” and the confederation’s finances were called into question, with debate focusing on the amounts – £50million over the next four years – committed to the Asian Champions League.

The tension mounted in the days leading up to the vote as the opposition turned up the heat on Hammam, with the attacks becoming personal and increasingly unpleasant.

Velappan was forced to issue a public apology after asking delegates to vote against Hammam and “send him back to the desert”, while Chung questioned the Qatari’s mental health, claiming he needed to be sent “to hospital, not to FIFA”.

Through it all Hammam kept a low profile and, on the day of the congress, made several key concessions to take the sting out of the opposition.

First, he relented on his attempts to relocate the confederation’s headquarters, then handed the six nations who were threatened with being barred from voting in the election the right to participate.

However, he refused to back down on his spending plans for the next four years despite criticism – led by Kuwait’s Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad, who also heads the OCA – that the budget would hamper development in some of the continent’s lesser nations.

Lousy product
“Our product is lousy,” Hammam said. “If there is a match between Manchester United and Chelsea, and two clubs from your country, who will you watch? Or a game between two Asian teams or Real Madrid and Barcelona, who will you watch? We need to improve our product first.

“We have an income of $130m [£80m] for the years 2009 to 2012. We want to compensate our clubs with the majority of our finances.”

The budget was approved by the congress in a victory every bit as significant as Hammam’s success in the fight for the executive committee seat and, despite the vitriol hurled in his direction in previous months, he stressed he would not change the way he runs the confederation.

“I’m not going to change my style of administering Asian football,” he said. “I have had full democracy and transparency since I became president. I respect the laws and the statutes of the AFC and I respect the laws of Asia. I never practiced anything beyond that. All 46 members are equal.”

Hammam also reached out in an attempt to heal a wound that will likely take much more than words to assuage. “Asia needs all of us, both camps,” he said. “We need to work hand in hand. We are not amateur people. We are not children. I believe we would all like to see fair play, whether it is in football or elections.

“I hope the future is going to bring trust and confidence in the executive committee of Asia. I hope also you will continue to trust me.”