AFC election exposes ugly side of beautiful game in Asia

Monday’s AFC election for a female member of the FIFA Council is a sad indictment of everything that’s wrong with football in Asia, according to Scott McIntyre.

Over the past half decade Asian football has lost more officials to bribery and corruption scandals than they’ve actually held major football tournaments and yet despite all this the backroom dealings continue to promote and protect those in power to the detriment of the actual game.

This week in Bahrain saw the latest sorry chapter in the history of the AFC when the confederation opted to elect as one of their seven voices on the FIFA Council a woman, Mahfuza Akhter Kiron, who, now famously, can’t name either the current Asian or World champions.

In turn they overlooked the other contender, Moya Dodd, who aside from being a former international player and highly regarded lawyer, is someone that has an extensive track record in the sport of fighting for and enacting genuine change that has opened the game to millions of people, especially women and girls, across the footballing planet.

One is an open advocate for progression, change and development of a sport that she’s spent her entire life in while the other is a figure shrouded in mystery with no clear track record of any major achievements in her time in the sport.

Moya Dodd has done a lot for women’s football.

Nobody at all is under any illusion whatsoever that Kiron was elected on merit; this was a political ploy by the same group of ‘powerbrokers’ that have for far too long held sway over Asian politics to have ‘their’ people put in place.

Indeed, it was curious to see some well-known ‘international advisers’ being granted VIP seats for the congress in Bahrain this week where the elections took place.

These are the same group of ‘colourful characters’ that have worked in the background for years in Asia, all the while focusing more on politics than the game.

Several years ago I was in Malaysia to cover a very similar election to this one and the same group of advisers and fixers then are still largely in place now and some of the ways they operate are beyond comprehension of the normal fan who simply wants to either watch or play the game.

On that occasion in Malaysia I was put in touch with a mysterious group of European-based ‘private investigators’ who had been employed by one side to dig up whatever dirt they could on the other.

That included tip-offs, which I followed through, of both brown paper bags being placed under the hotel doors of those voting in the election as well as late night visits from ladies of a certain persuasion – both of which I witnessed first hand on multiple occasions.

Astonishingly, it also included a ‘honey pot’ ruse where they arranged for another attractive woman to sleep with one of the candidates and glean information they could then use against him – to most people this sounds like the plot of some thriller movie but this is the reality about how politics operates in Asian football.

To complete the bizarre nature of the whole experience, on one occasion when I called our friend the investigator instead of hanging up he accidentally switched his phone to loud speaker whilst he was in the middle of a ‘tryst’ with the honey-pot woman who was supposed to be off charming the contenders….you honestly can’t make this stuff up!

As one of those ‘disgraced’ candidates who is no longer involved in the game told me recently for the majority in Asia it’s all about power and politics and you simply get ‘caught up in it.’

These are the same group of men who sit around smoke-filled bars drinking 500-dollar bottles of whisky – despite their religion prohibiting it for many of them – wheeling and dealing and if the conversation accidentally falls to football you’d be stunned.

I’ve met dozens and dozens of these people over the years and all with roughly the same knowledge of the game as the Bangladeshi, Kiron, who is now one of Asia’s most influential voices.

So, just how did this woman with little knowledge of the area of the game she claims to represent come to be elected?

Kiron has a very close personal relationship – some might say too close – with the head of her nation’s football association, Kazi Salahuddin, and with a deal being put in place that he was unable to contest this election due to his chairmanship of the South Asian regional bloc they instead honed in on Kiron contesting the spot reserved for a female member.

Friends in high places.

It’s no secret that Salahuddin has close ties with the AFC President Sheikh Salman and in turn with his Kuwaiti backers, the kingpin of which, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, has now thankfully stood down from his public roles.

Not clearly though his private ones, and with the rumour mill swirling that he was actually in Bahrain during the vote he and his people clearly did their work.

By his people, I mean the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), a body that he heads and who hold enormous sway over the game in Asia.

Put simply, if you want to get elected at virtually any level, you have to deal with these shady types, in their shady rooms and quiet often put up with their shady attire.

The shame in all of this is that there are, despite all the obstacles, good people still involved in the AFC trying to do what they can, but their number is dwindling as the OCA influence tightens its grip on a region where their money and their influence speak volumes.

At the same time that all these political ploys are being devised we have a body that doesn’t seem to be able to effectively discipline rogue clubs, players or officials and not even effectively promote their own flagship tournament, the Asian Champions League which has been mired in scandal ever since the AFC tried to sneak the defending champion, Jeonbuk Hyundai, into this year’s tournament despite it flouting their very own regulations.

What these rich men in their expensive rooms fail to grasp though is that this is the game of the people, a sport beloved by millions across Asia whose voice they are now entrusting to a political pawn – and that’s leaving aside some of the others who also sit on the FIFA Council from Asia.

What they also fail to grasp is that just as we’ve seen at FIFA there is now a huge collection of investigators, informants and journalists rising to say enough is enough.

Players, fans and sponsors are sick to death of rich businessman and royalty using our game as their plaything and the longer they brazenly continue to thumb their noses at those who the game belongs to the harder their fall – and that of the array of staff who protect them – will be when it comes.

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