The Asian Football Confederation's presidential elections highlight football's murky governance
12pm, 2 May 2013, Kuala Lumpur
For the small band of sports news reporters, it was familiar territory: the anteroom of a five-star hotel conference room, the expensive uneaten nibbles, the stale coffee, the laminates hanging from our necks. For the uniformity of it all we might have been in any of sport's staging posts: London, Zurich, Paris, Doha. But today it was the turn of Kuala Lumpur.
Among the delegates who drifted out of the hall there was a sense of quiet excitement and relief. A new president of the Asian Football Confederation had just been elected. Most people agreed that it was politically the right result, even some of the defeated candidates. Football was not mentioned, of course.
One by one the vanquished and the victors emerged. But, dictaphones primed, we all only had eyes for one man.
Then there was a charge and there he was, amid the scrum, the king of world football himself, Sepp Blatter. He was a little more stooped and shrunken than the last time I had seen him, a couple of years earlier, but still very much the same; beady-eyed and cunning, a politician's smile stretching every sinew of his face.
As 100 or so reporters chased the 77 year old around the hotel, his affable French press attaché somehow keeping us all at bay, Blatter said virtually nothing. Responding to a question about the tone of the occasionally bitter election campaign, he smiled and replied — as only he can — "I have seen total transparency."
Later that afternoon he put out a statement praising the AFC for its "unity as well as solidarity". It might as well have just said, "Thank you for not choosing my enemy's friend."
AFC elections have pedigree in representing some of the very worst of football. In few other areas of global sport do national interests, regional rivalries, corruption and bitterness mingle into as noxious a mix as they do in Asian football. At once they have absolutely nothing and everything to do with football. They are about power for the sake of power and are an extreme example of the way that the game as a whole is governed worldwide.
The previous presidential elections in 2009 between the incumbent, Mohamed bin Hammam of Qatar, and Bahrain's Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa, were a case study in personal abuse, conspiracy theories, alleged vote-buying, corruption and general misbehaviour by men who should have known far better. To many in world football, this was less a leadership election than a referendum on Qatar's role in global sport. At the time the tiny Gulf country was bidding for the 2016 Olympics, the 2022 World Cup and Bin Hammam was said to have an eye on the Fifa presidency. Win the election and Bin Hammam's position as head of Asian football and on the Fifa Executive Committee would have been enshrined, giving him and Qatar huge leverage in contests that lay ahead.
What followed was a concerted effort to stop Bin Hammam. The Korean industrialist and Fifa vice-president, Chung Mong-Joon, aligned with his perennial rival Sepp Blatter to stop Bin Hammam. The Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) headed by the powerful Kuwaiti, Sheikh Ahmad Fahad Al-Sabah, also stepped in on the side of Sheikh Salman. In holding authority over a great swathe of Asian sport and acting as a meeting point between various national political interests and sport, the OCA's importance far transcends sport. "The forces of hell lined up against us," recalled one Bin Hammam associate. "We faced Blatter and Fifa, Chung, the OCA, the East Asian countries… Can you imagine all these individuals and groupings casting aside all their differences just to stop us?"
The volatile atmosphere soon erupted into name-calling, allegation and counter-allegation. Bin Hammam suggested in a TV interview that Chung should be decapitated; his head and arms cut off. "It is a popular, harmless and widely used Arabic metaphor," Bin Hammam later explained, comparing it to the English phrase "Heads will roll", but Chung was unconvinced. "I am afraid that Mr Hammam may be a sick person who needs to be at a hospital rather than at Fifa," he told reporters. "It looks like Mr Hammam is suffering from mental problems. I want to advise him to consider going to hospital." He then went on to allege that Bin Hammam was "acting like a head of a crime organisation" and that Asian football suffered from a serious lack of transparency, democracy and the rule of law.
The allegations also included claims of vote buying. José Mari Martínez, president of the Philippine Football Federation, later alleged that his national association received financial offers as grants from the Philippine National Olympic Council (NOC) in return for voting for Sheikh Salman. The federation declined these offers and supported Bin Hammam (Martínez was accused in a 2012 PWC audit report commissioned by the AFC of receiving $60,000 from an AFC account when Bin Hammam was its president).
In the days leading up to the election, the atmosphere was murky, frenzied and all manner of procedural horseplay went on. It was not clear until the day before the vote whether Kuwait, East Timor, Mongolia, Brunei, Afghanistan and Laos would be allowed to vote. With a constituency of just 46 voters, these are not just the margins by which elections are won and lost, but deciding factors. In the end they were all allowed, and despite facing a grand alliance Bin Hammam won by 23 votes to 21. Two of the ballot papers had been spoiled.
"Unfortunately some bad acts have taken place," Bin Hammam reflected a week later in London. "I hope that we in Asia overcome these bad acts and that we will be able to conduct our [future] elections in a much better way."
For the two years that followed, Bin Hammam kept on winning. It became habitual. Nothing Sepp Blatter, Fifa, the AFC or any of his rivals did could stop him. No matter how big or small the battle, he went on winning. On 2 December 2010, he claimed the biggest prize of them all for Qatar: hosting rights for the 2022 World Cup. It probably represents the most extraordinary — and the most questioned — result in the history of football.
For Blatter, there was one prize that was bigger even than the World Cup: the Fifa presidency. Concession after concession had been put the way of Bin Hammam since he was re-elected AFC president — advisors sacked for upsetting him, political shenanigans overlooked in Asia, muted outrage after the World Cup decision — but when he announced his candidacy for the Fifa presidency in March 2011 he appeared to have crossed the Rubicon.
On 10 May 2011, Bin Hammam appeared at a meeting of the Caribbean Football Union (CFU) to present his election manifesto at the Grand Hyatt in Port of Spain, Trinidad. Because the Fifa Congress adheres to a one-member-one-vote system, in electoral terms Antigua is as important as England; as a voting bloc carrying the CFU, is like carrying half of Europe and twice as important as the whole of South America. Mindful that this was such a key battleground, at the summit up to 25 CFU officials were each offered envelopes containing US$40,000 in cash to persuade them to vote for Bin Hammam. But the Qatari was betrayed. A file was sent to Fifa, which included sworn affidavits by several CFU members, secret recordings and photographs of the bribes. Bin Hammam was suspended by Fifa two days before the presidential election and subsequently banned from football for life. It meant Blatter was re-elected unopposed. It also meant that the AFC needed a new president.
While Fifa justice dealt with Bin Hammam over the next two years, the AFC was led on an interim basis by China's Zhang Jilong. After the turmoil left in Bin Hammam's wake, it was felt that he represented the steady pair of hands that might bring some unity and redemption to the organisation. As a long-term option, however, some judged him to be overly passive and lacking charisma. Others suggested that the Chinese National Olympic Committee — after coming under pressure from the OAC — told him not to stand for the position permanently. When nominations closed for the AFC presidency in March 2013, Zhang's name was not among the four listed.
The UAE's Yousuf al-Serkal was considered one of the two frontrunners. A vastly experienced sports politician both within the Emirates and Asia, he was a friend of Bin Hammam but without the blemish of corruption allegations throughout his long career. He was someone to be taken seriously. He employed Vero Communications, the PR agency run by the British spin doctor, Mike Lee, whose campaigning successes included the London and Rio Olympic Games and, of course, Qatar 2022. Unlike the other candidates Al-Serkal actively engaged with the media and published a manifesto that used words like "transparent", "improved governance", and "football". Football, as we will see, was a word often far from the other candidates' lips.
Hafez al-Medlej, a 43-year-old Saudi, who chaired the AFC's marketing committee, was considered a wildcard selection. Although few took his candidature seriously, there was recognition that as the son of a regional superpower anything could happen. "All it takes is two or three calls from the Saudi royal family and the other Arab candidatures are over," claimed one election insider. Al-Medlej would spend most of his campaign waiting for those calls to come.
The inclusion on the slate of Worawi Makudi, a longstanding Fifa Executive committee member, also represented something of a surprise. Makudi had faced a multitude of allegations in his native Thailand concerning ownership of land on which the Thai FA headquarters were built with Fifa grants. Although cleared by Fifa the stink had not quite gone away. Like Al-Serkel he was known for his links to Bin Hammam. Indeed over the subsequent couple of months all three of these candidates would be accused of links to Qatar.
The overwhelming favourite was Sheikh Salman, who, since his narrow defeat in 2009, had kept his head down, but continued to cultivate support across Asian football — a base that had previously brought him agonisingly close to the confederation's presidency. He was confident of success too. "In 2009 I said that I had a 50-50 chance and I was right," he said in March. "In this election, so far things are moving well. I think now I am 70-80% there."
But amid this support within international football, serious questions were raised about Salman's suitability for high office. In February 2011 the Arab Spring came to his native Bahrain. Pro-democracy protests by the Shia majority challenged the absolute monarchy of its Sunni leaders. The Pearl Roundabout in downtown Manama became a focal point for peaceful protests, which were at one point even encouraged by the royal family. Emboldened, footballers, athletes and other significant figures joined in. It would be the biggest mistake of their lives. As the rule of the Bahraini royal family teetered on the brink of collapse, soldiers augmented by a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) force from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and beyond swept in to help the Bahrainis ruthlessly put down the protests. Activists claim that four protesters were killed in the operation.
What happened in the wake of the failed protests was perhaps even more shocking. The Bahraini authorities used television and photographic evidence to identify protestors and arrest them. These included doctors and other medical staff who had cared for injured protesters. According to the Associated Press a special sports commission was also established to pick out athletes involved in the protests and as a result 150 sportsmen and women, referees and coaches were arrested. They included the brothers Mohamed and A'ala Hubail, heroes of the national football team, who had brought Bahrain to the verge of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. "We saw some masked men get out of the car. They said, 'Captain A'ala, get you brother' and we went with them," A'ala later explained in an ESPN documentary. "They put me in the room for the beatings. One of the people who hit me said I'm going to break your legs. They knew who we were... We were forced to endure it. I had to endure it. If I didn't something worse would have happened to me."
Mohamed Hubail was tried in secret and sentenced to two years in jail in April 2011. When Fifa belatedly intervened in June that year he was released on appeal, but with his brother forced to play in exile in Oman. A'ala's case, coming after the Fifa intervention, was thrown out of court. A third national team player, Sayed Mohamed Adnan, left for Australia and played for the Brisbane Roar. None were made available for national team selection again.
Sensitivities ran high in Bahrain about this issue. Peter Taylor, briefly England coach in 2001 and by 2011 in charge of the Bahrain national team, claimed he had never heard of A'ala Hubail. Which was funny, because when I asked him about his non-selection of the Hubail brothers at a post-match press conference in Qatar in November 2011, he erupted into a rage so intense that I feared he was going to jump across the table and assault me. It seemed odd that a player he had never heard about could produce such a volcanic reaction.
But if Taylor was only following orders — which seems the best case scenario for the former Leicester boss — whose were they? This was never clear, but the head of the Bahraini federation was none other than Sheikh Salman. Worse still, the Associated Press alleged that Salman "chaired" the committee that "identified them [the athletes] from photographs of the protests." Salman did not comment on the article at the time, nor has he ever issued an outright denial that he sat on the committee. The furthest that he went was blandly claiming that he has never violated the statutes of either Fifa or the AFC, which seems a strange moral code to invoke when faced with allegations of such magnitude.
It was the day before the election. Kuala Lumpur's Mandarin Oriental Hotel was abuzz with rumour and intrigue. For all its grandeur, the lobby was compact enough for the electoral rivals to have to sit within touching distance of each other through the clouds of cigarette smoke that encircled every delegation. On one side of the room Sheikh Salman's entourage spread out around a coffee table. The president of the Kuwait Football Federation and younger brother of Sheikh Ahmad, Sheikh Talal Fahad Al Sabah, sat wearing a baseball cap, leering at his rivals across the room, a mobile phone permanently attached to his ear.
Opposite him was the sizable Qatari delegation spread out across two tables. An anomaly in the AFC statutes meant that the new president was not automatically assigned a seat on the Fifa Executive committee. The presidential election would be followed immediately by one for the Exco seat, which Hassan al-Thawadi, the charismatic CEO of the Qatar World Cup organising committee, was contesting. El-Medlej and Al-Serkal had decided to step aside for this contest, fanning another series of Qatari conspiracy theories. Behind the Qataris sat the Emiratis, wearing blue-logoed 'Football at Heart' T-shirts. Al-Serkal was omnipresent in the lobby, stalking it, wise-cracking, shaking hands. In a world in which the real business is conducted behind closed doors, this was not a good sign for his campaign.
I watched from the sweeping staircase as the president of the Afghan Football Federation sat with his general secretary. The hotel is a place of opulence and wonder, where rooms start at $300 per night and a coffee and cupcake on the beautiful verandah cost $20 — around a week's average wages in Kabul.
Two years earlier I had embarked on the last leg of an arduous journey that had taken the Afghanistan national team from Kabul to Dubai, then to Delhi, Amman and finally Palestine for a 2014 World Cup qualifier. Criss-crossing Asia rather than flying direct was the cheapest way their impoverished federation could fulfil their fixture obligations. On the bus through the West Bank, the players sat with their legs raised, trying to prevent the swelling and cramps that come from such a lengthy journey. They arrived at their down-at-heel hotel, in which they slept three to a room, 22 hours before the match and went almost immediately to the stadium for a training session. It was a timely reminder that away from the glamour and TV spectacles that we associate with international football in Europe, the reality elsewhere is often fairly bleak, with players uncosseted and national associations struggling to pay their bills. I'm certain that the modest Afghan players would have been slack-jawed in these surroundings.
The Afghans were joined by the heads of the federations of some of the world's poorer nations: Bhutan, Timor Leste, Burma, Nepal, all at the expense of the Asian Football Confederation. At a time when its annual spending on "football development" is just $12million for the entire continent there seemed something grotesque in so much cash being ploughed into a junket for men in suits. But then football politics exists in a complete vacuum: one delegate was reminded not to feel sorry for the North Korean delegation — all wearing Kim Jong-un haircuts — when one of their number produced from his briefcase the latest and most high-spec MacBook available.
Makudi and Al-Medlej were conspicuous by their absence, but no one considered either a serious candidate by that stage. A colleague had arranged to interview the Saudi a day earlier and was told to meet him in a branch of Starbuck's. "When will I come?" he asked. "I'll be here all day," came the reply, as if he had nothing better to do. El-Medlej had then shown up at the Mandarin early evening and sat in the lobby watching the AFC Champions League on his tablet computer, seemingly oblivious to the frantic handshaking and lobbying going on around him. There was something endearing about the way he approached the inevitability of his defeat and he openly admitted he would be pulling out. At 7pm, a statement from the Saudi FA confirmed the inevitable.
Sheikh Salman, by contrast, appeared here and there, in and out of meetings. He lacked the presence of his rivals and assumed the aspect of a provincial GP; sombre, meticulous, serious. Al-Serkal muttered that he was just a "shadow" of Sheikh Ahmad and one glance would tell you that his perception was accurate. The Kuwaiti towered above everyone and was as loud and charismatic as Salman was demure and unassuming. He was trailed everywhere by a huge bodyguard, who merely had to cast a menacing glare to part the waves of Arab media.
For them this was a circus. I was just one of two journalists to have travelled from Europe, and only one made the journey from Australia. Apart from the newswires, virtually every reporter came from the Gulf. Every night an array of Arab-language networks broadcast live election specials. It was difficult enough to report 500 words of interesting written copy, even harder to fill 30-minute primetime broadcast slots with the day's news. In reality these amounted to extended rants, denunciations and propagation of regional conspiracy theories. Football, as ever, was of secondary interest.
One was often left with the feeling that for them this was 'proper' politics by proxy; that the Gulf Arab candidates, with their vast entourages and huge media interest, would take it less seriously if they had parliamentary democracy in their home countries to fill their time and TV schedules. But under the rule of absolute monarchs — or as parts of the royal families themselves — and in the absence of players and teams that can compete among the global elite, for them football politics fills an important void. To followers of the endless rhetoric, conspiracy theories and, frankly, nonsense in the region's sports newspapers, the AFC election was as close to democracy as they got.
Indeed, there followed a certain logic to their obsession with football politicians. If your country doesn't have a Messi, Rooney or Ronaldo to believe in, why not pin your hopes on a Sheikh Salman or Mohamed bin Hammam? At least Bin Hammam can claim that he helped 'win' his country the World Cup, which is something none of those players can say.
The shadow of Bin Hammam, nevertheless, hung heavily over proceedings. Statements were circulated by the Kuwait Football Association expressing its 'deep concern' about a media report that Bin Hammam had visited various national associations in order to support the candidacies of Al-Serkal, Makudi and al-Thawadi. The fact that he might simultaneously support rival candidacies spoke loudly of the paranoia and complexities of AFC politics.
"Upon my arrival today in Kuala Lumpur I have witnessed that the entire group of the former AFC president was present and speaking to various members of the AFC family," noted Husain Al Musallam, the vice-chairman of the KFA's International Relations and Legal Committee, in a statement. Fifa sent a fax warning that Bin Hammam was not a man people should be talking to. The Kuwaitis obligingly circulated it for them. Earlier that week Fifa's ethics committee had, for reasons unexplained, handed an eight-year ban to Bin Hammam's one-time ally, the Sri Lankan Fifa Exco member Vernon Manilal Fernando. It represented a stark reminder that Fifa justice can be particularly punitive for the Qatari's friends and, perhaps, a warning to those considering a vote for Al-Serkal.
"Where is Bin Hammam? He is not here," said Al-Serkal when we sat down for a chat in the lobby. "Who is here? Sheikh Ahmad is here. The OCA is here. Who is running? I know I am running. Can you tell me is it clear Sheikh Salman is running? Can you picture Sheikh Salman alone? You close your eyes and who do you see? You see someone else. Sheikh Salman is only a shadow."
It was difficult not to like the engaging Al-Serkal, who in manner and demeanour reminded me of Bin Hammam. History has cast the Qatari as one of Fifa's ultimate villains, but I always found him courteous and deeply infatuated with football — attributes that in my experience characterise few in the Fifa family. While he had been accused of many things and wronged many decent people for his own purposes, human rights violations were certainly not among the accusations he has faced.
I asked the Emirati about the allegations made about Sheikh Salman's role in the suppression of athletes involved in pro-democracy protesters. The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights had just written to Blatter calling on him to withdraw Salman, whom they accused of "human rights violations … against players, administrators, referees and clubs who participated in the democracy protests."
The Gulf's conservative social norms usually make it seem bad form to cast aspersions about neighbouring royals. But Al-Serkal did not hold back. "I, myself in general think that I am a better choice than Sheikh Salman," he said. "In this case as well, I think I'm fitter. He's not fit. When it comes to politics I'm a sports man. I understand nothing in politics."
Everything suggested Sheikh Salman would win, even if Al-Serkal's worst crime was no more than being friends with the vanquished Bin Hammam. There was no suggestion that he shared any form of culpability in the Qatari's sins. Al-Serkal repeated his concern about the involvement of Sheikh Ahmad and the OCA. The Kuwaiti is a close ally of Blatter and at an earlier election in January 2011 I'd seen how he played a key role in ousting former Fifa vice-president (and one-time presidential hopeful) Chung Mong-Joon. The OCA had proved highly sensitive to these allegations and when a story was published about it booking an entire floor of the Mandarin — the implication being that they were buying favours with their allies — it was promptly cancelled —and then (according to their rivals) switched over to the Ritz Carlton.
Stalking the corridors of the Mandarin, it was obvious that what was going to follow was a carve-up, but it was difficult to see any signs of overt corruption. Even the suspicious Arab media were silent on this issue. There was no sign of the high-end prostitutes for whom five-star hotel lobbies are a magnet throughout Asia.
But if everyone was well-behaved in Kuala Lumpur, elsewhere on the campaign trail things were not as they might have been. Given that most of the candidates came from one of the most socially conservative regions on earth, what they had to overlook or encounter seems surprising.
A key date on the lobby trail, the Asean Football Federation Awards at a resort hotel in Kuantan, Malaysia, in April, was described by one attendee as "seedy and appalling… prostitutes outnumbered delegates while a Filipino rock band filled the place with ugly noise." Who knows what favours were carried out in the name of cleaning up the name of Asian football that night, or on others?
By the morning of the election, a wave of exhaustion seemed to have washed over everyone. On both of the previous nights, many of the election teams had stayed up until the small hours became the wee small hours, watching the Champions League semi-finals unfold six time-zones away.
We journalists waited in the foyer in front of the Congress Hall, trying to read the runes and gain a glimpse of what might unfold inside. One by one they came: Sheikh Ahmad and his man mountain bodyguard, Makudi, Sheikh Salman, Hassan al-Thawadi, Michel Platini, Blatter and finally Al-Serkal. None gave anything away. Only Blatter stopped, exchanging a word with a Japanese photographer who was dressed in a full Brazil kit and wearing fluorescent orange astroboots.
But then, from the corner of my eye, what was this? A senior member of the Qatar delegation embracing Salman? A man they had been at war with for months? This wasn't a subtle act of courtesy, it was carried out in the full glare of the Arab media. Was this Asian football's Judas Iscariot approaching Jesus in Gethsemane? Had a backroom deal carved up the spoils of Asian football, giving the AFC presidency to Salman with a place on the Fifa Exco for Hassan al-Thawadi? We would soon find out.
Into the hall we trooped and the formalities were under way. A welcome speech by the outgoing president Zhang Jilong. Blatter pleading for unity ("United we stand, divided we fail," he said, misquoting the Aesopian wisdom). A roll call. A vote on whether to afford Brunei voting privileges. And then, finally, the vote. Candidates were called two by two, entering clear glass voting booths to the left and right of the stage. These were apparently introduced after candidates were alleged to have photographed their ballot papers with camera phones in order to prove their loyalty in previous football elections.
A two-thirds majority, or 31 of the 46 available votes, were needed for a first-round victory. Most observers expected Makudi to be eliminated first time round followed by a run-off between Salman and Al-Serkal. But then the Arab media started filling the back of the Congress Hall and it seemed that something was afoot. Camera lights flicked on and a dozen TV reporters readied their microphones for an instant reaction.
Alex Soosay, the AFC general secretary, stood up and told the Congress that all the votes had been counted and they were all valid. The roar of elation from the Kuwaitis and swathes of the media told us that Sheikh Salman was a first-round victor with an astonishing 33 votes. Makudi had seven votes, he said. Al-Serkal had six. There would be no run off. The AFC had a new president.
Twenty minutes later Soosay confirmed that there had been no backroom deal between Salman and Qatar. The Bahraini had prevailed 28-18, although the reality was that there were just five votes in it.
In the darkened hall, my phone glowed with messages and tweets from Bin Hammam's enemies. "Bahrain 2 Qatar 0," one read.
Afterwards, among delegates, exhaustion gave way to relief that the ghost of Bin Hammam had been exorcised. It seemed slightly unfair on Al-Serkal, who had seemingly been made to pay for the sins of his friend. His defeat had been crushing: besides Qatar and his own federation, just four other countries had voted for him. Even the hapless Makudi polled more. "Despite the force of OCA, despite the force of all kinds of countries I accepted to continue with the race and accepted the result whatever it is," he said. Asked for comment, Makudi said simply, "I have no idea."
In the press conference afterwards, there was much talk from Sheikh Salman about "unity", "smooth transitions", "realistic goals". Given the virtual blackout of the western media in the days running up to the vote, it was my first encounter of him at close quarters. There was a civility and seriousness there, but no spark. He seemed a safe pair of hands, probably the right choice after the tumultuous few years that followed Bin Hammam's fall. Even Al-Serkal's friends admitted as much.
The press conference ground on and on, but still the elephant in the room sat there.
I put my hand up.
"Could you just clarify some of the serious allegations that were made against you about sitting on a commission in Bahrain that identified athletes that were involved in the pro-democracy protests, and can you also comment on an accusation made by the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights that you were involved in human rights violations, please?"
Media officer: "I think he has answered it so many times that…"
"Well, can he answer it for me?"
Sheikh Salman: "I have no problem answering it. I have one question: you talk about allegations, but the question is proof. Somebody talks about government, I don't think that this is our business. We are football people. If anybody has proof that the Bahrain Football Association has violated the statutes of Fifa or the AFC let them present it. Otherwise we will move to the other question."
Afterwards, variations of the same answer were given to the BBC and Australia's SBS. In an interview with AFP, Salman went further, suggesting that allegations made against him were the work of an unnamed foreign government determined to smear him. But still there was no denial. The Associated Press stands by its August 2011 report, which alleges his role as chair of the commission.
"Sheikh Salman has talked of the need for reform and accountability at the AFC, but he still has very serious questions to answer about his role in the serious abuses of protestors, including footballers and athletes, in the anti-government protests of 2011," Human Rights Watch's Nicholas McGeehan told The Blizzard. "In replacing Mohamed bin Hammam with Sheikh Salman al Khalifa, the AFC has replaced a man accused of making bribes with a man accused of ordering torture. The ever-increasing involvement of serious human rights violators in the funding and governance of football should be of real concern to anyone who loves the sport."
Article 3 of the Fifa Statutes demands "Non-discrimination and Stance Against Racism". It reads, "Discrimination of any kind against a country, private person or group of people on account of ethnic origin, gender, language, religion, politics or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion." Article 14 of the Fifa statutes insist those bound by Fifa rules maintain political neutrality. Article 11, paragraph 1, sub-section R of the AFC statutes demand each member association "manage its affairs independently and with no influence from third party, even if the third-party influence was not the fault of the Member concerned."
Sheikh Salman may or may not have violated these statutes. He also knows that Gulf monarchies are absolute and that his own country is notoriously intolerant of dissent. The likelihood of a whistleblower going public, or of documents being leaked is so slim as to be virtually non-existent. Equally, the proof he demands may or may not exist: it could be the work of a foreign government, after all.
But what is indisputable is that the careers of the Hubail brothers, Sayed Mohamed Adnan and others now lay in tatters for partaking in peaceful pro-democracy protests at a time when he was president of their federation.
"We are his responsibility and people like him should solve the problem, not ignore it," Mohamed Hubail told the Associated Press on the eve of the election. "I have a lot of anger. I really miss playing for my team and for Bahrain."