All Things to All Men?

And so it is official at last. There will be an election for FIFA president this June, and Mohamed bin Hammam will oppose Sepp Blatter. At his press conference in Kuala Lumpur, bin Hammam announced his candidacy, and outlined his manifesto for the job.

  1. The FIFA Executive Committee to be replaced by a FIFA board consisting of 41 members, (17 more than the current ExCo). The new members to be four each from UEFA, CAF and the AFC, three from CONCACAF and one each from of CONMEBOL and the OFC.
  2. An executive committee, consisting of the President of FIFA, and the presidents of the six Confederations charged with implementing the decisions of the board.
  3. A transparency committee – supposedly to make sure that the operations of FIFA are open and clear to the public before they happen, rather than referring to the ethics committee to look into accusations after they have been made.
  4. A doubling of the grant given to each FIFA member annually, from US$250,000 to US$500,000
  5. An increase in the maximum grant available through the GOAL projects, so as the FIFA grant can now run up to US$1 million.

It is an agenda that should appeal to all tastes. In Europe and the USA, FIFA has been accused of being corrupt, and focussing power in too few hands – the new board and committees will not only address this, but if the transparency committee actually does its job, then some of the spectre of conspiracy may be rooted out. But this comes at a cost – currently nine of the 24 ExCo members (including Sepp Blatter himself) are European, while the new Board will be 12/41 UEFA. Meanwhile the Africans and Asians will double their influence from four to eight members each, and the president himself will be an Asian. If the power structure is then devolved from the centre to the Confederations, as bin Hammam appears to be promising, then one suspects there will be less of a central organisation to scrutinise how the handouts are spent, and we can be sure that the Europeans will not be welcome, when it comes to checking on expenditure on other continents.

So what is on offer is more power to those looking for more power, more money for those looking for more money, and more democracy for those looking for more democracy.

And now a thought, bin Hammam has been president of the AFC since 2002, and has just been re-elected in that role. So what has he achieved in that time. I had difficulty with that one, so I turned in desperation to the man’s own web pages, at www.afcpresident.com

To quote: “Under his leadership, AFC has grown in strength and stature, turning into a lean and modern organisation, playing its role as protector of Asian football’s interests. Further, the value of its competitions has now increased to a billion dollars, guaranteeing its financial future”.

I had to read that one more than once, and I still do not know what it means. It is true that since 2002, football has improved immeasurably in at least 3 of its 46 members. In particular, Japan has a powerful league, built up internally by generally ignoring Asian competition, (the Japanese still won the Asian Champions League title in 2007 and 2008). The South Koreans have dominated the competition in recent years, while the Chinese league appears to be strengthening, bolstered only by the AFC in ignoring its own rules, and not suspending the league for past corruption. The true strength of Japan is shown at National level, where the country has won four of the last six Asian Cups.

While UEFA at least maintains a shadow of hope in its Champions League, by allowing the Champions of all its countries to enter the qualifying rounds, before reaching group stages at which only the best countries are represented, Asia is far less democratic. At the behest only of AFC committees, Asian football is divided into ‘Mature Nations’ permitted to play in the Champions League, ‘Developing Nations’ which have a similar competition, the AFC Cup but with less publicity, less money and just the small carrot of a couple of qualifying matches where teams can be selected for either competition. These two together give places to not many more than half the countries in the region, with the rest choosing (or not) to enter a club into the Presidents Cup – which is for ‘Emerging Nations’, or as the AFC does not put it, crap footballing countries where there is no political or financial argument for inclusion.

These emerging nations are also excluded from the Asian Cup, and the Asian World Cup qualifying games are arranged to ensure that they play just one or two rounds of knock out competition, and the big guns never have to bother to play these minnows.

The record of the AFC in defending little countries or little clubs is stunning.

Brunei is not known as a hot spot for World Football, but by entering a club first into Malaysian competitions and more recently into Singaporean competition, they were doing more than OK. Quite frequently for home matches, DPMM could get 7,000 spectators, and sometimes as many as 10,000 – that is between 2% and 3% of the whole population of the country. That means one club in Brunei can be supported by a greater portion of the population than all the professional sports clubs in Britain put together! (The only country that competes with this is probably Monaco, where crowd figures can frequently be around 50% of the state’s population – but of course the majority of these have crossed the borders from France rather than living in the principality).

However, in 2008, Brunei’s football federation did not file its papers correctly with the national government. The Malaysian FA decided that as the BAFA was no longer a legal organisation in its home country, no Brunei team could play in Malaysia. In Singapore, they thought differently, and armed with an assurance that the team would be allowed to play a whole season, whatever happened, they accepted the team into their S-League. DPMM won the Singapore League Cup. Meanwhile, the BAFA was replaced by a new organisation, the Brunei Football Federation (BFF). FIFA ruled this as unacceptable political interference and suspended Brunei. The S-League threw DPMM out of their league with five games to play.

Over a year later, there has been little progress, and Brunei will remain suspended and not be permitted to enter the World Cup. The AFC’s part in all this is practically zero. The AFC should have been trying to negotiate a resolution to the problem, but there is little to be gained in Brunei, so let’s ignore the problem. The AFC also appear to be silent over the chaos at the heart of Indonesian football. Here again FIFA are taking the lead and their latest pronouncement shows something of a change of heart.

Earlier this year, when opposition was growing in Indonesia to the corrupt Football Association, the PSSI and the breakaway LPI (League Professional Indonesia) started, it appeared that FIFA was backing the current PSSI administration and the threat was to suspend the association if a probe into corruption went ahead. Now Blatter is speaking differently, stating that FIFA statutes must be adhered to and that it “is impossible to have a breakaway league in a well organised federation”. For greater clarification, another FIFA official, Thierry Regeness has said “As far as we are concerned the PSSI statutes as approved by FIFA are pretty clear and they mean clearly that someone who has been convicted of a criminal offence should not be able to [stand]” – a clear indication that PSSI chairman Nurdin Halid (whose Wikipedia entry refers to as an “Indonesian Criminal, Businessman and Politician”), cannot stand for re-election.

Also in Indonesia this week, a club called Persipura played an AFC Cup game in front of 700 people in the National Stadium in Jakarta. Indonesian football actually can generate good crowds and Persipura’s last home match as watched by over 18,000 – a typical figure. Persipura come from Jayapura, in Papua province – the most easterly point in Indonesia and quite simply rather difficult to get to. Asian cup football is not for everyone, so the AFC are far happier to send the home club on a journey almost a distant as that travelled by the away club to play in front of a handful of disinterested people in a massive stadium, than to play the match in front of a big crowd. The equivalent in Europe had been if Manchester City had switched their game against Kiev to play in Stockholm – and only Kiev had been allowed the benefit of a non stop flight!

One does not have to be a supporter of Blatter to be seriously concerned over this rival bid for the presidency. After all, we know that if Bin Hamman gets in, then he will be trying to stay in power until the 2012 World Cup is played out in his homeland. Would the world of football be better off holding on to the devil it knows for another four years, and then hope someone better comes along?