The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) is embarking on far-reaching restructuring designed to make the organization more democratic and transparent as well as rollback changes that effectively concentrated power in the hands of its suspended president, Mohamed Bin Hammam.
The restructuring is intended to insulate Asian soccer from the corruption and match-fixing scandals that have engulfed world soccer body FIFA as well as the beautiful game in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa and quell concern among fans and sponsors.
It also aims to dismantle Mr. Bin Hammam’s legacy and establish the organization as a model of soccer transparency and accountability. AFC reformers hope that their moves will persuade their FIFA colleagues to introduce badly needed changes that both fans and sponsors would like to see implemented.
The AFC executive committee signaled its intention to address issues of corruption and mismanagement by deciding at a 6.5-hour meeting in Kuala Lumpur on Friday to appoint a five-member ad hoc committee to identify changes the organization needs to adopt as well as produce recommendations for dealing with Mr. Bin Hammam who last month was banned for life from involvement in soccer by FIFA’s ethics committee.
Mr. Bin Hammam was accused of bribing in May officials of the Caribbean Football Union (CFU) to ensure their support for his failed campaign in last June’s FIFA presidential election.
Mr. Bin Hammam, a 62-year old Qatari national who has headed the AFC for the past nine years, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and has vowed to appeal his banning. Mr. Bin Hammam is the highest official ever to have been banned by FIFA and the first in the organization’s 107-year history to be barred from soccer for life.
Peter Velappan, who as secretary general of the AFC from 1979 to 2007 introduced Mr. Bin Hammam to the Asian confederation, described the Qatari in an interview as the “architect of bribery and corruption first in the AFC and then in FIFA.” He described the AFC and FIFA as “a culture of corruption.”
Mr. Velappan said he had supported Mr. Bin Hammam in 2002 in line with a general feeling within the organization at the time that its new leader should for the first time be a non-Malaysian national.
“The problem was that he never understood Asia. Asia is multicultural. He was never at ease with anyone. Communications was a big problem because his English was not proficient. His strength was money, not his leadership and not his skills,” Mr. Velappan said.
Mr. Velappan said Mr. Bin Hammam maintained close ties to the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, until the soccer executive this year became the center point of the latest FIFA corruption scandal. He said the emir had started funding Mr. Bin Hammam’s soccer activity in 1993, when the Qatari national backed Sepp Blatter’s candidacy for the FIFA presidency.
He said the emir had given Mr. Blatter a plane to travel the globe for his campaign and had maintained support for Mr. Blatter until earlier this year when Mr. Bin Hammam decided to challenge the incumbent president.
Mr. Velappan said he supported calls by the German football association and a British member of parliament for an investigation into Mr. Bin Hammam’s role in Qatar’s successful but controversial bid to host the 2022 World Cup.
The AFC executive committee in a statement said the terms of the ad hoc committee, which has yet to be formally established, “would reflect the principles of fighting corruption, improve the AFC administration and promote financial transparency.”
Sources close to the AFC’s deliberations said the establishment of the committee was a success and involved tough discussions with executive committees viewed as allies of Mr. Bin Hammam who were opposed to its creation. They said the AFC acknowledged Mr. Bin Hammam’s right to appeal but wanted to insulate Asian soccer from the politics involved in his case.
“The main message is that the executive committee was very successful. Sure, there was resistance from certain people. It was a tough fight. But the most important thing is that we have an ad hoc committee that will evaluate on all levels the systems within the AFC in a transparent way. It’s the organization that is important, not the individual,” one source said.
An AFC spokesman declined comment for this article, saying that the organization did not wish to add to what it had already said in its official release.
Mr. Velappan said Mr. Bin Hammam had on Thursday evening persuaded his allies to boycott Friday’s executive committee meeting. He said the boycott was abandoned after the AFC made clear that a boycott would have legal consequences given that their travel to Kuala Lumpur for the meeting had been funded by the organization.
The sources said the restructuring was likely to involve rewriting the organization’s statutes, which were changed after Mr. Bin Hammam took office in 2002. The statutes in their current form effectively empower the president rather than the executive committee and virtually strip the office of the secretary general of any authority. They allowed Mr. Bin Hammam to install in all of the AFC’s departments a person loyal to him whose authority superseded that of the department head.
“The secretary general was reduced to a nobody. The standing committees were weakened, they discussed nothing,” one source said.
Mr. Velappan said Mr. Bin Hammam disempowered AFC committees by reducing their scheduled meetings from 3 to 1.5 hours and banning the posing of spontaneous questions. Mr. Bin Hammam insisted that questions be presented and cleared by him prior to meetings. Day-long executive committee meetings were also shortened to 1.5 hours.
The sources said the ad hoc committee was likely to include an audit of the AFC’s finances in preparation of its recommendations to restructure the AFC and dismantle Mr. Bin Hammam’s legacy.
The AFC’s relationship with Singapore-based World Sport Group is likely to also come under scrutiny. Mr. Velappan said Mr. Bin Hammam had set the AFC’s tender rules aside by awarding the group the organization’s marketing rights – including sponsorship, broadcast and merchandising in four three-year $60 million contracts in a row without seeking bids from competitors.
A spokeswoman for World Sport Group said management could not be reached for comment.
Acting AFC president Zhang Jilong is expected to appoint the ad hoc committee in the coming days. The sources said the committee, which is to report back to Mr. Zhang by November, would not include supporters of Mr. Bin Hammam who opposed its formation such as AFC executive committee members Vernon Manilal Fernando of Sri Lanka, Worawi Makudi of Thailand and Ganesh Thapa of Thailand.
The sources said that the executive committee had delayed calling for an election to replace Mr. Bin Hammam to ensure that his final removal from office and AFC’s restructuring occurred in line with the organization’s statutes and in a transparent fashion. The organization’s legal committee needed time to work out the legalities of a situation that the AFC had never dealt with before, the banning of its chief executive for life.
The delay also gives the AFC time to await the outcome of a FIFA investigation of Messrs. Manilal and Makudi’s possible involvement in Mr. Bin Hammam’s bribing of the CFU officials, according to the sources and Mr. Velappan said.
“Blatter is committed to cleaning up FIFA, it is his legacy. He is in the process of taking care of Makudi and Manilal. It will have been dealt with by November,” Mr. Velappan, who maintains regular contact with Mr. Blatter, said.
Messrs. Manilal and Makudi alongside fellow FIFA executive committee member Hany Abou Rida of Egypt accompanied Mr. Bin Hammam on his trip to Trinidad for a meeting with CFU member associations during which the disgraced soccer executive allegedly paid officials $40,000 each to support his presidential ambitions. FIFA last week sent summons to all three men.
Thai anti-corruption authorities are looking separately into Mr. Makudi’s Thai soccer-related dealings, according to sources contacted by the authorities and private investigators.
Mr. Bin Hammam’s allies are also on the defensive within AFC itself.
Mr. Thapa faces separate issues of his own within the AFC. The AFC has warned Mr. Manilal that Nepal could lose the hosting of the 2012 AFC Challenge Cup in March of next year if it fails to get its facilities into shape. Jordanians who played in Nepal earlier this month described the pitch as a dirt field and the countries facilities as abysmal.
An AFC inspection team evaluating Nepal’s bid to host the Cup, much as what happened with FIFA’s evaluation of Qatar, advised against awarding the tournament to Nepal and in favor of its competitors, Palestine and the Maldives.
The AFC’s competition committee, headed by Yousuf al-Serkel, a UAE national and ally of Mr. Bin Hammam, backed the Nepali bid despite the inspection report, the sources and Mr. Velappan said.
Sources close to the AFC deliberations said Mr. Thapa as a member of the executive committee had acted improperly by lobbying the organization to ignore the inspectors’ report and award the hosting of the Cup to his country.
“They have to prove that the problems have been fixed. Otherwise the hosting of the tournament will be open again,” one source said.
AFC executive committee members are also looking at ways to more structurally enhance accountability and reduce opportunities for abuse. One proposal being bounced around would be to move soccer development programs into a separate legal entity that would be independently funded by sponsors. “It would increase transparency and demonstrate a new way of doing things,” a source familiar with the discussions said.
(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer)