Bitter FIFA fight to go to Asian vote

BANGKOK A bitter and raw political fight for a seat on FIFA's powerful executive committee, involving claims of vote buying and perceived threats of violence, will be resolved within a week by an Asian Football Confederation vote.

Both the executive committee seat and presidency of the AFC will be at stake when 46 member nations choose between 13-year incumbent and AFC chief Mohamed bin Hammam of Qatar and his challenger Sheik Salman Bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa of Bahrain - former friends who have become bitter rivals.

The lead-up to the vote has involved politics at its most ruthless and open, prompting a formal interjection by FIFA president Sepp Blatter and exposing the bitter factional divisions within the vast Asian confederation, which stretches from the Arab states in the west, across to Japan in the east and down to Australia in the south.

The winner of the poll on May 8 - coincidentally Hammam's 60th birthday - will get the seat on FIFA's executive committee.

Bin Hammam upped the stakes by saying he will also quit from his seven-year hold on the AFC presidency if he loses the FIFA ex-co vote next Friday.

Bin Hammam had pushed for the AFC and FIFA jobs to be more closely linked.

He had campaigned for the AFC president to automatically be appointed as a vice president of FIFA's executive committee.

He said that was at the urging of FIFA, to bring Asia in line with the other continental confederations.

Currently bin Hammam is a member of the executive committee, sitting below South Korean Chung Mong-joon, who is a FIFA vice president, though the Qatari outranks the Korean within the AFC.

The consequent rivalry between bin Hammam and Chung was thought to be the source of the heat in this election campaign.

Hammam believes Hyundai scion Chung is orchestrating Salman's election campaign, with the Bahraini considered as a proxy for the east Asian lobby in the longstanding divide between the two sides of the giant confederation.

"This man (Salman) used to be a very close ally of mine," Bin Hammam said.

"I am not saying that this is a reason for him not to contest the election, but the gentlemen himself had no ambition in that way, so the idea is that someone has pushed him and forced him to go that way."

The vote next week is the most public skirmish in a decades-long rivalry between Bin Hammam and Chung, with football's highest office as the prize.

"Chung and myself have never enjoyed a good relationship in the 20 years or so since I came to the AFC," Bin Hammam said.

"The second thing is that Chung is trying to contest for FIFA presidency ... and he thinks that I am not going to support him, which is absolutely right.

"There is no way I am going to support him. This man knows nothing about football."

The enmity between the AFC chief and Korean officialdom was made plain when bin Hammam said in a Qatari TV interview early in the campaign that he would cut the head off Korean FA president Cho Chung-yeon.

While bin Hammam told The Associated Press that this was merely an Arabic metaphor similar to the English saying "heads will roll", that was not enough to placate the Korean Football Association, which referred the comment to FIFA's ethics committee.

However, that semantic spat was a sideshow to more serious accusations of vote buying on behalf of Salman.

Bin Hammam said the Olympic Council of Asia was offering financial inducements in the form of grants to those nations who cast their vote for Salman.

Hammam made the comments in an interview for Australia's SBS television network, whose football analyst Les Murray - a member of FIFA's ethics panel - officially reported the accusation, saying he had uncovered evidence to support's Hammam's allegation.

The OCA responded by threatening legal action, while Salman also refuted the claims.

Salman, a member of Bahrain's ruling royal family, was bullish about his chances of unseating Hammam next week. Apart from support in the east, he is thought to have pulled the support of the other sheiks in the west away from bin Hammam.

"I have heard him say a couple of times that he has 30 votes, 35 votes, God knows how many," Salman said of his rival.

"I don't think his numbers are accurate. You can't fool people. People have their contacts. People know who is supporting Bin Hammam and people know who is supporting me.

"Let's just say I have a bigger chance than him."

So unseemly has the election campaign become, that Blatter had stepped in to demand both candidates fight fair.

"Football is a universal sport based on the fundamental principles of discipline and respect for opponents," Blatter said.

"These values must be applied not only on the field of play, but also in the administration and governance of football, particularly in the area of sports politics.

This includes elections to the governing bodies of football."

Bin Hammam was a strong backer of Blatter's when his FIFA presidency was challenged in 2002.

Chung was in the other camp in '02. Yet bin Hammam's bid for re-election to the executive board had a setback when FIFA restored the votes of five Asian nations which had previously been told they were ineligible to participate in the poll.

Afghanistan, Laos, East Timor and Mongolia were initially told by the AFC that their non-participation in regional competitions over the past two years had rendered them ineligible, but FIFA reversed that ruling.

FIFA also reinstated Kuwait, which had been told by the AFC that it would not be counted due to non-recognition of that country's interim committee running football.

Bin Hammam, who is credited with developing Asian football and its administrators at a grassroots, professional and national level, denied he had been trying to block certain votes in the fear they would be cast for Salman.

Kuwait is home to the Olympic Council of Asia, which denied offering inducements to national administrators to elect Salman and offered to open its books for FIFA to audit.

But OCA director general Husain Al-Musallam made it clear whom he would support, if it came to a personal choice.

"We don't take stands officially to support Salman because we're not voting members," of the AFC, Al-Musallam said.

"But if you ask for my opinion, I will say change is good. We see the situation, it's chaos. Asia needs a leader to unite Asia.

"In sporting fairness, though, we will congratulate the winner." - AP

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