4 campaign for Asia's top job ahead of May 2 vote
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -The campaign to be the next president of the Asian Football Confederation has only just officially started, yet has already provided the kind of twists, turns and surprises that could be hallmarks of the period ahead of the May 2 election.
Three candidates from the Middle East and one from Thailand are in the running. There's nobody in the contention from China, Japan or South Korea.
The first shock came before nominations even closed, with Zhang Jilong opting out of the race. Zhang, from China, has been acting chief of the AFC since May 2011 when long-serving president Mohamed bin Hammam was suspended after allegations of corruption.
Zhang announced two days before the March 3 deadline that he'd be leaving it to somebody else to lead the continental governing body.
Three of the four hopefuls hail from the western side of the continent. Both Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa of Bahrain and Yousef Al Serkal of the United Arab Emirates indicated to The Associated Press in recent weeks that they would run, but the addition to the list of Saudi Arabia's Hafez Ibrahim Al Medlej was not widely expected.
Long-time FIFA Executive Committee member Worawi Makudi's nomination was also surprising, coming only months after he was cleared by the sport's world governing body of allegations that he profited from football development projects in Thailand.
Worawi says he has the support of the 11 members that make up ASEAN, south-east Asia's representative body, as well as Australia. Being the lone candidate from his region is an early advantage, considering his three rivals all come from the same zone.
"I was unanimously proposed and nominated by the ASEAN football federation and they have given me this mandate which I feel very honored to accept,'' Worawi told AP in a telephone interview. "They also confirmed that they will all be behind me for the campaign and the election.
"I have respect for the other candidates who are running for this position, but the election entirely belongs to the national associations.''
The key to winning the election will be how candidates perform outside their own regions, making the votes of South Asia and East Asia crucial.
Al Serkal, like Worawi regarded as an ally of Bin Hammam, is a vice-president of the AFC and believes that he can get the votes when the confederation's Congress in held in Kuala Lumpur in early May.
"If I didn't think I could win, I wouldn't run,'' he told AP. "I wouldn't jeopardize my name and experience that I have built within the AFC otherwise. I am not doing this to introduce myself to the continent. I don't need the publicity. I am doing it to add value to the AFC.''
Al Serkal says he already has the support of a clear majority of west Asian national associations. There are growing calls for the region to unite behind one candidate amid concerns that a split in support could allow Worawi too much of an advantage. The West Asian Football Federation is meeting on Wednesday to discuss the situation.
It is likely that Al Serkal's main rival will be Sheikh Salman. The president of the Bahrain Football Association came within two votes of defeating bin Hammam for a seat on the FIFA executive committee in May 2009.
The election campaign became a bitter battle that widened divisions in Asia. The suspension of Bin Hammam in May 2011 only deepened the problems in the confederation with factions both for and against the Qatari continuing to squabble.
It is not surprising then that the theme of the campaign, in public at least, is about which candidate is best placed to bring unity to the confederation's 46 members.
"Asian football needs solidarity and unity,'' Al Serkal said. "We need a leader with a good personality and experience than can bring all of Asia together under one flag. There should be no more politics, let's concentrate on football.''
That, at least, is something that all candidates can agree on.
In an interview with AP last month, Sheikh Salman, a member of the Bahrain ruling family, denied that national team players had been arrested shortly after participating in pro-democracy demonstrations in February 2011.
"We'd like to keep sport as it is and the political side we never talk about,'' he said. "There is progress in the political situation with negotiations still going on with the opposition and government but ... I want to talk about football.'' He declined a subsequent interview request after nominations closed.
Al-Medlej is head of the AFC marketing committee but has little profile outside Saudi Arabia and is considered an outsider in the campaign.