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AFC power struggle reflects sorry state of soccer governance

Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa and Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein

By James M. Dorsey

FIFA Vice President and Asian Football Confederation (AFC) executive committee member Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein in an uncommon display of elegance and magnanimity in the rarefied world of world soccer as well as of Middle Eastern and North African leaders has conceded defeat in a battle that is symptomatic of the sordid state of football governance.

Prince Ali’s concession came even before the AFC Congress in Sao Paolo on the eve of the World Cup in Brazil adopted a resolution that solidified the power base of AFC president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa and could next year terminate Prince Ali’s presence in the FIFA executive committee.

Taking the high ground, Prince Ali at the last minute supported a proposal by Sheikh Salman to combine the post of AFC president and FIFA vice president rather than maintain the vice presidency as an elected position in the realization that the Bahraini’s power grab was likely to succeed.

“In the spirit of Asian solidarity and harmony, I asked all member associations present at AFC Congress ahead of the vote to pass this amendment and to be united in this vote for the best of Asia. Our unity as a confederation is crucial at a time when we must work together to develop football in Asia; which I believe is our core mission. A mission I am committed to. It is far more important than positions, chairs and seats,” Prince Ali said in a statement.

Prince Ali who was elected three years ago had bitterly opposed the proposal prior to the AFC congress on the grounds that it sent the wrong signal at a time that world soccer needs demonstrations of greater transparency and accountability the most.

In endorsing the proposal at the last moment, Prince Ali hoped to demonstrate that soccer governance should be about the benefit of the sport rather than personal power, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa where it is highly politicized and ruling elites control the game in a bid to gain political benefit and prevent the pitch from becoming a platform for anti-government protest.

Prince Ali could nonetheless as yet decide to challenge Sheikh Salman in next year’s AFC presidential election or run for the FIFA executive seat that will become vacant as a result of the combination of the AFC presidency and the FIFA vice presidency.

At stake in an at times bitter battle between Prince Ali, a prominent reformer, and Sheikh Salman, a proponent of the existing order that has produced the worst crisis in the history of soccer, was the need for a radical revamp of the sport’s governance structures.

Proponents of reform, among whom Prince Ali figures prominently, have been fighting an uphill battle for the past four years. That battle has become more difficult with FIFA president Sepp Blatter whose image has been tarnished by multiple scandals, including fresh allegations of Qatari bribery in its successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup, seeking to weaken his critics within the group as he campaigns for a fourth term.

The election last year of Sheikh Salman to complete the term of disgraced AFC president Mohammed Bin Hammam, the Qatari national at the centre of the Qatar controversy and the FIFA scandals, says much about world soccer management’s attitude towards governance. Three national soccer players in Sheikh Salman’s home country were three years ago denounced as traitors, detained and tortured for participating in anti-government demonstrations three years ago. The players have been released but Bahrain has since arrested two whole teams.

Sheikh Salman, a member of Bahrain’s ruling family and head of the Bahrain Football Association, has refused to comment on the plight of his players. British prosecutors are weighing a petition by a Bahraini national for the arrest of a relative of Sheikh Salman’s, Prince Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa, the eldest son of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, commander of the Gulf island’s Royal Guard and head of the Bahrain Olympic Committee, on suspicion of involvement in the abuse of political prisoners. Prince Nasser phoned into the show on state-run television that denounced the three national team players in a demonstration of support of what amounted to a kangaroo court.

Sheikh Salman’s bid to gain total control of the AFC rather than democratize soccer governance came not only at a time that confidence in the integrity of the sport’s management is being mired in a seeming cesspool of corruption and greed, but also in which the integrity of the selection process of participants in the World Cup is being called into question.

A just published study by Canadian researchers Christian Stone and Michael Rod in Soccer & Society concluded that the current system for World Cup qualification was not based on ensuring qualification of the best 32 teams in the world but on securing and enhancing FIFA’s profitability. FIFA was reported to have earned $4 billion since the last World Cup four years ago, including its sponsorship fees. The study concluded that the qualification system did not “fairly allocate qualification spots on the number of teams per (regional soccer) federation or any other metric.”

Messrs. Stone and Rod argued that FIFA’s system of fixed World Cup berths for each of its six member federations means that Latin America and Europe occupy half of the available spots in a World Cup even though they account for only 20 percent of the total FIFA population. Moreover, qualification matches for the World Cup account for only one percent of all games played by teams from different regional confederations.

“As such, while there continues to be development and growth of teams from regions outside of CONMEBOL (Latin America) and UEFA (Europe), these teams are given limited possibility of greater international exposure in order to satisfy the World Cup status quo allocation of spots to some confederations,” Messrs. Stone and Rod said.

They went on to argue that “if indeed the World Cup is a tournament that is home to the best 32 national footballing teams in the world, than steps should be taken to ensure that this is the case for each tournament, regardless of the origin of the teams…. The important factor here is the transparency of the process that removes exclusive world football power from the executives at FIFA and instead shares it among the various stakeholders of football.”

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title

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