Asian Football: A Cesspool of Government Interference, Struggles for Power, Corruption and Greed
The Version of Record of this manuscript has been published and is available in The International Journal of History of Sport on June 2, 2015, http://www.tandfonline.com/, DOI 10.1080/09523367.2015.1040222
Key words: AFC, Asian soccer, Governance, Middle East
Arab politics have been written into the DNA of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) starting with the expulsion of Israel in 1974. The expulsion like that of Taiwan the same year underscored the incestuous relationship between politics and sport that is among the most prevalent in the Middle East and North Africa despite self-serving denials by the high and mighty of regional and international sports. A failure by world soccer body FIFA in the cases of both Israel and Taiwan to follow through on threats to sanction the AFC for violating the charters of the world and Asian soccer body with the expulsions has shaped global soccer’s attitude towards autocratic regimes. In the Middle East and North Africa, FIFA and the AFC’s refusal to insist on adherence by national associations to their principles, rules and regulations amounted to effective support for autocratic rule in a soccer crazy region where rulers see the game as a key tool to retain power by exercising absolute control of public space and an institution that evokes deep-seated passions.
FIFA’s and the AFC’s refusal to enact principles enshrined in their charters has had over the years far-reaching consequences for the AFC, no more so since 2002 when Qatari national Mohammed Bin Hammam became the group’s president until he was banned for life by FIFA from involvement in professional soccer eleven years later and under the reign of his Bahraini nemesis and successor, Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa. The governance of both men reflects the autocratic traits of the societies they hail from. Both men are imperious, ambitious and have worked assiduously to concentrate power in their hands and sideline their critics clamouring for reform. Both men, hailing from countries governed by absolute, hereditary leaders, have been accused of being willing to occupy their seats of power at whatever price with persistent allegations of bribery and vote buying in their electoral campaigns.
Ambition, corruption and greed led to Bin Hammam’s ultimate downfall. Salman continues to be dogged by allegations that he was involved in the arrest of scores of soccer players and officials and the commissioning of violations of their human rights because of their participation in mass anti-government protests in Bahrain in 2011. Both men have consistently denied any wrongdoing. Yet, their ascendancy on the global soccer stage reflected not only personal ambitions but also efforts by their home countries to exploit the world’s most popular sport as a vehicle to polish tarnished images and project themselves as players within the international community.
An incestuous relationship
Global soccer’s self-serving denial of the incestuous relationship between sport and politics is contradicted both by the history of the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) as well as that of its two last elected presidents, Bahrain’s Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa in the wake of the island state’s brutal suppression of a popular revolt, and Qatar’s Mohammed Bin Hammam in the run-up for the Gulf state’s successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup.
Asia offered the perfect platform. As soccer czars, the two men emerged as the most senior governors of the world’s most popular sport on the world’s largest and most populous continent at a time when Asia was rising. They ran an organization that was inherently political much like FIFA and the AFC’s counterparts in other parts of the world witness the composition of the Asian group’s executive committee and the boards of many of the national associations who populate its membership. This is nowhere more prevalent than among its 13 West Asian or Middle Eastern members who account for 28 percent of the AFC’s 46 member associations.
Six of the AFC executive committee’s 21 members in the period from 2011 to 2015 hailed from the Middle East. They include Salman, a member of Bahrain’s minority Sunni Muslim ruling family; Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, a half-brother of Jordan’s King Abdullah who has emerged as a reformer and thorn in Salman’s side; the United Arab Emirates’ Yousuf Yaqoob Yousuf Al Serkal who maintains close ties to his country’s ruling elite; Sayyid Khalid Hamed Al Busaidi, a member of Oman’s ruling family; Hafez Al Medlej, a member of the board of Saudi Arabia’s tightly controlled soccer association who made his career in the kingdom’s state-run media; and Palestine’s Susan Shalabi Molano. That number has risen to seven in the executive committee elected in April 2015 that includes Sheikh Salman and Shalabi Molano as well as Mohammed Khalfan Al Romaithi, deputy commander –in-chief of the Abu Dhabi police force and representatives of Kuwait, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia and the head of Islamic Republic of Iran Football Federation (IRIFF).
Peter Velappan, the AFC’s secretary general from 1978 to 2007 noted in a recently published memoir that “football enjoyed complete patronage from the royal families and the sheikhs.” Other members of the outgoing AFC executive committee include Prince Abdullah Ibni Sultan Ahmad Shah, the crown prince of Pahang, Malaysia’s third largest state; Makhdoom Syed Faisal Saleh Hayat, who served as minister in various Pakistani governments and is a member of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP); and North Korea’s Han Un Gyong.
The close ties between sport and politics, particularly in the Middle East is also reflected in the composition of the boards of the region’s national soccer associations and many of its major clubs. Almost half of the West Asian Football Federation’s 13 members are headed by members of ruling families or commoners closely associated with them, including Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar and Jordan. Saudi Arabia’s association remains tightly controlled by the kingdom’s General Presidency of Youth Welfare that is headed by a member of the ruling Al Saud family even after former Saudi Arabian Football Federation (SAFF) Prince Nawaf bin Faisal became in 2012 the Gulf’s first royal to resign under popular pressure. Members of the board of the IRIFF are closely linked to the government or Iran’s Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution popularly known as Pasdaran or Revolutionary while many of its clubs are owned by state entities. Similarly, clubs in the Gulf and Syria are frequently owned by members of ruling families and state institutions, including the military and security forces.
The Middle East’s close ties between sport and politics are regionally evident in Asia not only in the AFC but also in organizations like the Olympic Council of Asia (OAC). The OAC is headed by Sheikh Ahmed Al-Fahad Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, a prominent member of Kuwait’s ruling family and former oil minister, member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and head of the Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC), who is believed to harbour political ambitions in his home country and to play a major behind-the-scenes role in AFC politics. Ahmed is widely viewed as one of world sport’s most powerful movers and shakers who played a key role tainted by allegations of vote buying in Sheikh Salman’s election in 2013
Moreover, nine of the OAC’s board members hail from the Middle East. The Kuwaiti, Bahraini, and Jordanian members belong to ruling families, while those from Syria and Lebanon like their Thai and Pakistani counterparts are military officers. Iran’s representatives include a former oil minister who headed the country’s Physical Education Organization, the state entity that exercises political control of sports, and the head of a state-owned soccer club. True to the non-transparent political dealings in global soccer designed to not only maintain political control but also ensure that a closed circle of executives and politicians remain in power, Sheikh Salman repaid Sheikh Ahmed’s favor by manipulating elections in April 2015 for Asia’s FIFA executive committee seats to position Sheikh Ahmed for a candidacy for the FIFA presidency in 2015 should he wish to run.
The AFC’s intimate association with politics is further highlighted by former secretary general Velappan’s glowing description of the group’s long standing efforts to build bridges between feuding parties on the Asian continent such as India and Pakistan, North and South Korea, Iraq and the Gulf states following the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and China and Taiwan. Politics was moreover at the core of the AFC's landmark decision in 1974 at the behest of its Arab members to expel Israel in the wake of the 1973 Middle East war. The move prompted world soccer body FIFA to present the AFC with an ultimatum on the ground that its decision violated FIFA and the AFC's statutory principle of non-discrimination. FIFA threatened to suspend the AFC if it refused to revoke Israel’s expulsion within a period of 30 days.
It was politics that ultimately persuaded FIFA not to follow through on its threat when the AFC refused to succumb in one of the first acts of defiance by one of the world body's constituent members. That same year FIFA again threatened the AFC for its expulsion of Taiwan at the behest of China and again the world body succumbed to the Asian group’s defiance. FIFA's failure and the AFC's defiance created the basis for a policy by both organisations adhered to until today that effectively supports autocratic rule in the Middle East and North Africa by refusing to insist on adherence by national associations to the principles, values, rules and regulations of the global and regional governing bodies. FIFA more recently requested information from the Bahrain Football Association (BFA) about the arrest and torture of soccer players accused of participating in a brutally suppressed popular uprising in 2011. Pressure by the world soccer body persuaded Bahraini authorities to release two players, brothers Alaa and Mohammed Hubail, but FIFA refrained from investigating the BFA or holding it accountable. Nor was Sheikh Salman who was tainted by allegations of involvement in the crackdown on athletes and sports executives investigated.
Ironically, the AFC’s undeclared yet effective support of Middle Eastern autocracy played into Israel's cards despite its expulsion. The policy served to strengthen the region’s autocrats whom Israel despite an official state of war long viewed as regimes it could do business with and who were less likely to seek its destruction. Ironically FIFA and the AFC’s handling of Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has come full circle in the wake of the popular revolts that have rocked the Middle East in the 21st century and mounting international criticism of Israeli policies that among other things hinders the development of Palestinian soccer. After years of failed mediation efforts, FIFA warned Israel in late 2014 that it could be sanctioned if it failed to ensure the free movement of Palestinian players and officials in the West Bank and Gaza.
FIFA and the AFC’s tacit support for autocratic regimes is evident in its failure to enforce rules governing their assertion that sports and politics should be separate, the eligibility of clubs to compete in premier leagues, and abidance by principles of non-discrimination. This failure is clear in the expulsions of Israel and Taiwan, the fact that clubs in Iran are majority government-controlled or owned in violation of single ownership rules and clubs elsewhere in the region have ties or are entities of families ruling with absolute power.
This support takes on added significance in a world in which the politics of soccer has played an important, if not a key role in the development of various Middle Eastern and North African nations since the late 19th and early 20th century. That role is reflected in the fact that a large number of soccer clubs in the region were founded with political associations and continuous efforts by autocratic governments to politically control the game. It is also evident in the politics underlying the Middle East and North Africa’s foremost derbies, including Teheran’s Esteghlal FC v Persepolis FC, a traditionally leftist opposition club versus one historically associated with Iran’s rulers, and Amman’s Al-Faisali SC v Al-Wehdat SC, a reflection of Jordan’s East Bank-Palestinian divide.
No sign of cleaning house
Middle Eastern autocracy was not alien to the world of global soccer governance whose secretive ways pockmarked by lack of transparency and accountability have come to a head with the controversy over the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. Beyond the 2022 tournament, Middle Eastern autocracy is also at the centre of FIFA and the AFC’s travails with the presidencies of arch rivals Salman and Bin Hammam.
Little in Salman’s career as head of the BFA, former secretary general of the Bahrain National Olympic Committee (NOC), and president of the AFC suggests a willingness to uphold values enshrined in the Asian body’s statutes such as the group’s neutrality in politics, universally accepted principles of good governance and management, or his own electoral promises. Rather than reforming the AFC, Salman since taking office has sought to concentrate power in how own hands and sideline reformers. Salman’s past electoral battle with Bin Hammam as well as his election in 2013 and his simultaneous defeat of Qatar’s Hassan al-Thawadi in the competition to fill Bin Hammam’s vacant seat on the FIFA executive committee moreover mirrored the balance of power in the Gulf where Bahrain and Kuwait are more closely aligned with Saudi Arabia than Qatar which has charted an independent foreign policy and projection of soft power that is at odds with others in the region.
In an electoral message in his first AFC campaign, Salman, a former soccer player, asserted that “I believe that too many power and political games are affecting the harmony of Asian football when the only game that should matter is the one taking place on football pitches. As leaders in our sport, we must never lose sight of the fact that we are first and foremost servants of the game, at all levels and in all corners of the Asian continent.” Salman listed as his values “fair play, cooperation, team work, transparency, integrity and passion for the game.”
Salman’s failure to adhere to his electoral promises and values has contributed to the failure of both the AFC and FIFA to put behind them the worst corruption and mismanagement scandal in the history of world soccer. In fact, a cleaning of the AFC’s house in line with recommendations of an internal audit of the Asian group’s finances in 2012 that toppled Bin Hammam, who was in 2013 banned for life from involvement in professional soccer, could have helped spark badly needed reform of the world body.
The audit conducted by PricewaterhouseCooper (PWC) suggested that the AFC under Bin Hammam’s management may have been involved in money laundering, tax invasion, bribery, and busting of US sanctions against Iran and North Korea. PwC warned that “it is our view that there is significant risk that: i. The AFC may have been used as a vehicle to launder funds and that the funds have been credited to the former President (Bin Hammam) for an improper purpose (Money Laundering risk), ii. The AFC may have been used as a vehicle to launder the receipt and payment of bribes.”
The report cited a slew of questionable payments to AFC executive committee members and their families and Asian and African soccer officials and associations as well as to Jack Warner, the disgraced head of North and Central American and Caribbean soccer who resigned in 2011 to escape investigation of his alleged role in the purported bribery by Bin Hammam of Caribbean Football Union executives to ensure their support in his failed attempt to defeat FIFA president Sepp Blatter in a 2011 electoral battle.
The audit further questioned a $1 billion master rights agreement (MRA) between the AFC and World Sport Group (WSG) negotiated by Bin Hammam without putting it out to tender or financial due diligence. The agreement failed, according to PWC, to give the AFC a right to audit WSG’s services or costs. “In comparison with similar-type agreements for other sports, it appears that the current MRA may be considerably undervalued,” the audit said.
The audit further asserted that Bin Hammam among other things had:
“used the AFC’s company bank accounts to facilitate personal transactions as if they were his personal bank accounts” with the knowledge of the soccer body’s finance committee and under the management of AFC finance director Amelia Gan who was fired last year after he was suspended;
received in February 2008 $12 million from Al Baraka Investment and Development Co, believed to be owned by Saudi billionaire Sheikh Saleh Kamel. “We understand that the Al Baraka Group may have been a 20% beneficial owner of the WSG group” (World Sport Group) with which the AFC signed a $1 billion master rights agreement (MRA) in June 2009 negotiated by Mr. Bin Hammam;
received $2 million from International Sports Events (ISE) in November 2008, “an entity which is currently a 10% shareholder of the WSG Group.” The report said that PWC’s “enquiries indicate that Mr Mohyedin Saleh Kamel, the Assistant Chief Executive Officer (Investments) of the Dallah Al-Baraka Group may have been (from 2005 –2009) the Managing Director of ISE;” It said that a significant portion of these funds were subsequently transferred to Mr Hammam’s personal and company bank accounts” in Jordan and Malaysia but that “no direct evidence has been identified to confirm a link between the payments purportedly for the benefit of Mr Hammam and the awarding of the MRA.”
transferred $4.9 million to Kemco Real Estate, part of Kemco Group that is allegedly owned by Bin Hammam; and
made cash payments to North Korea and Iran that could contradict international sanctions against those two countries.
PwC recommended that the AFC seek legal advice on whether to bring civil or criminal charges again Bin Hammam and others named in the audit and perform further work to determine if there was any relationship between the awarding of contracts to WSG and payments made to Bin Hammam and sufficient grounds existed to renegotiate or cancel the WSG contract.
Sheikh Salman’s burial of the audit and failure to act on its recommendations has meant a lack of good governance within the AFC on multiple levels. In a taped and written statement recorded by a FIFA security officer in July 2012 that became public in April 2015, AFC Finance Director Bryan Kuan Wee Hoong asserted that Soosay had asked him to “tamper or hide any documents” related to the general secretary that could figure in the PwC audit. The AFC said in a statement four days after the allegations became public that it was assessing the veracity of the allegations but failed to follow up on a request for a copy of the tape.
The PwC had earlier identified Soosay as well as Kuan as two of three AFC officials that had authorized payments under Bin Hammam for which the Asian group could be held legally liable. “Our transaction review revealed that items sampled were, in most cases, authorised by the General Secretary or Deputy General Secretary and the Director of Finance. As signatories these parties hold accountability for the authorisation of these transactions. We also note the Internal Audit and Finance Committees were aware of this practice,” the PwC report said.
The AFC also failed in January 2015 to distance itself from a statement by Soosay during the Asian Cup in Australian where Australian-Iranian women cheered the Iranian team defending Iran’s ban on women attending male sporting events.
Similarly, Gaurav Thapa, the son of Ganesh Thapa, who has been suspended by FIFA pending an investigation into corruption charges, was appointed AFC match commissioner despite having been named in the PwC audit as one of numerous recipients of questionable payments by Mr. Bin Hammam. ““All of the Nepalese associations’ affairs are run by Thapa. Everything is handled by his son. We don’t know anything. We just know that he is match commissioner. The Nepalese federation did not nominate him,” said Karma Tsering Sherpa, vice-president and an executive committee member of the All Nepal Football Association (ANFA).
Sherpa together with ANFA vice president Bijay Narayan Manandhar said in a February 15 letter to Robert J. Torres, a member of the ethics committee of FIFA’s investigatory chamber, FIFA genera20 2015 letter to FIFA general secretary Jerome Valcke, AFC general Secretary Dato Alex Soosay, and Robert J. Torres, a member of the ethics committee of FIFA’s investigatory chamber, that Ganesh Thapa in violation of ANFA’s statutes and despite his suspension was keeping ANFA executives “in the dark” about the group’s affairs, including audits of “unappropriated cash movements” and an ethics committee investigation.
Members of the ANFA board charged in April 2015 that Thapa despite his suspension had barred the association’s acting president, Lalit Krishna Shrestha, and general secretary Dhirendra Pradhan from attending the Bahrain congress. The association instead sent Thapa’s brother in law, Mani Kunwar, who is also a member of the board. Asked whether the fact that he was the only head of an Asian soccer association not to have been nominated for the AFC Congress, Shrestha said: “I agree with your logic. We have to compromise. That’s why we sent my friends.”
Sherpa said Kunwar had been sent to Bahrain despite the fact that four members of the Nepalese association, including Sherpa and two other vice presidents had filed a separate complaint to Torres, Valcke and Soosay against Kunwar. In the complaint, they accused Kunwar of behavior unbecoming of a national or regional soccer official. The complaint was based on allegation by Kunwar’s wife in the Nepalese media and a Nepalese court of having been robbed of her belongings by her husband and having been beaten by both Kunwar and Thapa’s wife.
Velappan, the AFC's former general secretary who first contracted WSG in 1986, reported that Bin Hammam had eliminated financial oversight in the AFC by introducing an audit committee that had authority over the group’s finance committee. He said the audit committee’s task was “to blindly support all the statements of accounts which he had drawn up for submission to the AFC Congress. There was absolutely no transparency in these accounts.”
Velappan charged that Bin Hammam had “hijacked” WSG and “made his own negotiations with the other partners. He submitted to the AFC Executive Committee in March 2009 a proposal for AFC to sign a three cycle contract for the period 2012-2014 (12 years). This was against the standard practice and against the law of natural justice. The AFC Finance and Marketing Committee had very few details of this nor was it transparent. He wanted to bulldoze this through the AFC Congress with no one knowing the true revenue figures to the AFC from such a long contract. It was such a high risk as no one could predict the future status of the company in the current economic situation. It was putting AFC into a serious financial dilemma should the company go bankrupt in the next few years.”
In an interview three years before publication of his memoir Velappan described Bin Hammam as the “architect of bribery and corruption first in the AFC and then in FIFA.” He described the AFC and FIFA as “a culture of corruption.” Velappan added that “the problem was that he (Bin Hammam) never understood Asia. Asia is multicultural. He was never at ease with anyone. Communications was a big problem because his English was not proficient. His strength was money, not his leadership and not his skills.”
Democracy versus dictatorship
In theory, Salman would have had every reason to act on the recommendations of the PwC audit given the bitter nature of his electoral battles with Bin Hammam since 2008. Salman was seen at the time by many as the candidate who in the words of Velappan would roll back the Qatari national’s changing the AFC’s “democratic institution into a dictatorial regime.”
Those battles were however characterised by mudslinging and allegations of vote buying that highlighted the role of Kuwaiti Sheikh Ahmed, a strong backer of Salman and fixture of current AFC politics.
Two of Salman’s rivals in the 2013 AFC presidential election, UAE Football Association president Yousef Al Serkal and Hafez Al Medlej of Saudi Arabia, accused the OAC and Ahmed of interfering in the poll. The OCA was reported to have offered during Salman’s failed 2008 campaign several AFC members financial incentives if they voted for him. News reports said OAC officials accompanied Salman on several of his stops in Asia during the 2013 campaign.
Inside World Football reported that the OCA had employed its political muscle in China to persuade Zhang Jilong, who was appointed as acting president of the AFC in the period between Bin Hammam’s resignation and the 2013 election to drop his plans to run for office. Jilong, who headed the AFC’s finance committee under Bin Hammam, had emerged as one of the Qatari’s strongest critics and initiated last year’s PwC audit. He was described, by AFC sources, as ash-faced when he announced at a private meeting the he was not a candidate in the AFC election.
Inside World Football further disclosed a letter by AFC general secretary Soosay to the group’s 46 member associations asking them to remember their "ethical obligations" when casting their vote. The letter warned against "offering and accepting gifts and benefits; bribery; and conflicts of interests." Soosay went on to note that “it is the duty and obligation of the Confederation to prevent the introduction of improper methods and practices which might jeopardize the integrity of, or give rise to, the abuse of football…” Former AFC executive Velappan reported that Bin Hammam had complained to the FIFA ethics committee that the OAC had given funds to NOCs to be distributed among national soccer organizations to secure their votes in favour of Salman. OAC denied the allegations.
Bin Hammam posed a formidable challenge to the ambitions of Salman and the OAC. A self-made entrepreneur, Bin Hammam made his money in the construction boom when his native Qatar like other Gulf states was first flush in cash in the wake of the 1973 oil boycott of the United States and the Netherlands that sent oil prices soaring. Passionate about soccer he graduated from heading Qatar’s successful Al Rayan SC in the 1970s and 1980s to the presidency of the Qatar Football Association (QFA) in the 1990s. Driven by ambition, Qatar soon became too small a pond as he eyed membership of FIFA's executive committee. His initial effort to challenge South Korean business magnate Chung Mong Joon for the FIFA vice presidency in elections in 1994 failed. Two years later however he won a seat on the executive and in 2002 he was elected for the first of three consecutive terms as AFC president.
Bin Hammam quickly established himself, according to Velappan's memoir and interviews with the ex-secretary general and other former and current AFC officials and staff as the representative of Asia despite the fact that three other Asians were also members of the FIFA executive committee. Bin Hammam’s position was strengthened by the fact that he, according to Velappan and investigative journalists Jens Weinreich and Thomas Kistner, served as the bagman for the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad, who funded FIFA president Sepp Blatter's electoral campaigns and at times put one of his personal planes at Blatter's disposal. Velappan recalled in his memoir that Blatter’s first election as FIFA president in 1998 was mired by “betrayal of promises, promises of favours, bribery and corruption, illegal delegates, faked votes, etc. The ‘beautiful game’ preaches fair play, morality and good ethical practices, but when it comes to grabbing power or leadership positions, human weaknesses are fully exploited. I pray for the day when elections can be fair and clean.”
Velappan, who as secretary general worked closely with Bin Hammam at the AFC described the Qatari initially as hard working and spending much of his time at AFC headquarters in Kuala Lumpur. That changed five years into Bin Hammam's presidency when in Velappan's words the Qatari's "true nature began to unfold." It was at that point that Bin Hammam sought to gain autocratic control of the group by creating working conditions that would prompt long standing AFC staff to resign so that he could replace them with Bin Hammam loyalists. "Hammam dismantled the entire internal structure of the offices (in the AFC) headquarters and opened them up like store rooms depriving the staff of privacy and a conducive working environment... Hammam unilaterally decided to terminate...employment contracts and gave all the staff a four year contract without a guarantee of renewal or the accepted international terms and conditions of service. This naturally upset the long serving staff, many of them quitting the AFC's service in utter disappointment," Velappan wrote.
He also moved to curtail open management by cutting back on the length of meetings of core AFC bodies, including the executive committee, and forcing committee members to give notice two weeks of any issues they may want to raise in meetings. Decision making was moreover centralised in Bin Hammam's hands. He would often inform loyalists of his decisions and instruct them on how to vote in committee.
The risk of good governance and reform
Despite the deep-seated hostility between Salman and Bin Hammam, acting on PwC’s recommendations as well as decisions taken at an AFC executive committee meeting in July 2011, embodied significant risk for the Bahraini who since coming to office has appeared more interested in concentrating power and side lining reformers within the Asian group than returning it to being a relatively democratic institution. With the exception of introducing an ethics committee that has yet to act on AFC’s serious legacy issues and an ethics code modelled on that of FIFA, Salman has done little to clean house in what is an organization that has multiple clouds hanging over it.
Salman solidified his power base by driving through a resolution at the AFC congress in 2014 in Sao Paulo that combined the post of AFC president and FIFA vice president rather than maintain the vice presidency as an elected position. The resolution also served to weaken reformers led by Jordanian Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein whose elected term as FIFA vice president ends in 2015. Six months later Salman used a proposal to recognize Central Asia as a separate soccer region on the continent to eliminate the post of a women AFC vice president. That post is currently held by Australian Moya Dodd, another prominent reformer.
Looming in the background of Salman’s reluctance to embrace transparency and accountability in deed rather than only in word is question marks about his role in the arrest of 150 athletes and sports executives, including three national soccer team players, in early 2011 on suspicion having participated in mass anti-government protests in Bahrain. Athletes had organized a demonstration on February 21, 2011 to protest against the government’s violent crackdown on anti-government manifestations.
Salman has used the mantle of a fictitious separation between sport and politics to deny any involvement in the arrests or express any empathy with his national team players, who were publicly denounced as traitors in Al Rased, a widely viewed talk show on state-owned television Two of the players asserted that they were tortured in prison. While Salman may as a member of a ruling family have felt restricted in what he could say publicly, he could have displayed greater compassion on the back of an independent commission whose conclusions and recommendations were accepted by the government that established that protesters had been tortured.
The commission headed by Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni, a globally acknowledged Egyptian-born US law professor reported that Al Rased “named protesters from various groups such as journalists, athletes and medical staff at SMC (the Salmaniya Medical Complex where many demonstrators were treated during the 2011 protests). During the course of these programmes, photographs were shown of protesters, who were described as traitors linked to Iran, and a liability to Bahraini society. The Commission has been informed that some persons mentioned in the Al Rased programme were arrested shortly afterward.”
The 489-page report cited the example of one unnamed athlete believed to be one of the national soccer teams who was arrested a day after he was featured in Al Rased. Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, a relative of Salman and son of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa who serves as head of Bahrain’s Higher Council for Youth and Sports and its National Olympic Committee (NOC) and commander of the Royal Guard phoned into the Al Rased broadcast on dissident soccer players and athletes to warn opponents of the regime. “To everyone that demands the fall of the regime, may a wall fall on their heads. Everyone involved in such issues and networks will be punished. Whether he is an athlete, an activist, or a politician, he will be punished in this time. Today is the judgment day. … Bahrain is an island and there is no escape. Everyone who took a part in this will be punished and everyone supporting us will be rewarded,” Prince Nasser said. In a message on Twitter on the day that 15 of the arrested athletes, including a national soccer team player, were sentenced to prison, Prince Nasser said that if he had the authority he would have given them life in prison.
A UK court with the endorsement of the Crown Prosecution lifted Prince Nasser’s immunity in 2014 on the grounds that the prosecution expected that initial evidence submitted would be supplemented by information that would allow it to open an investigation into allegations that the NOC chief had been involved in the commissioning of serious human rights violations. Prince Nasser has denied the allegations but had no opportunity to do so in court because he was not a party to the proceedings. In a separate statement, the Bahrain government condemned the court ruling as “an ill-targeted, politically motivated and opportunistic attempt to misuse the British legal system... The government of Bahrain again categorically denies the allegations against Sheikh Nasser. The government reiterates its firm condemnation of torture and recognises its responsibility to investigate any reasonable allegation.”
Salman immediately after the court verdict cancelled at the last minute his attendance at the Leaders Sports Business Summit in London, one of the most important annual gatherings of the global sports industry. Salman had been named in initial evidence submitted to the prosecution. That evidence included a report by the state-owned Bahrain News Agency (BNA) that Nasser in April 2011 had “issued a decree forming a committee of inquiry into the violations which had been committed by some of the sports entities members.” The committee was instructed “to prepare a detailed report in this regard and request the commission to take the necessary measures against those found guilty of insulting their country and leadership, according to each offense committed.” The evidence submitted asserted that “this committee was set up to investigate and punish athletes who had participated in the protests of February and March 2011, and chaired by Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa, the (then) Bahrain Football Association chairman.”
Salman at one point supplemented his denial of involvement in the detention in Bahrain with the charge that the allegations were a conspiracy by an unidentified government against him. Yet in a statement, his association said that its suspension of players, including the national team members, “falls under misconduct, and the breaching of the rules and regulations of sporting clubs . . . not to engage in any political affairs. Abdul Rahman Sayar, the then secretary general of the soccer association, went further, telling BNA that “the Federation in association with the clubs strives to impose all the necessary penalties and suspensions on those who violated the law from the athletes whether they were players, administrators, or coaches, through their participation in illegal demonstrations or gatherings or anything that tries to overthrow the regime or insults the state symbols.” The Bahrain Human Rights Centre (BHRC) reported that at least 30 players and officials were suspended by the soccer association. BNA said that a BFA board meeting chaired by Salman also penalized six clubs in the wake of the protests, a move that led to the demotion of two of the teams. The clubs had sent a letter to Salman requesting a suspension of matches because of the turmoil in the country.
Sayar’s statement was matched by remarks by heads of the Bahrain Basketball Federation President Adel Asoomi and the Bahrain Handball Federation Ali Issa Asoomi called for the “punishing [of] international players and club players in all sports who participated in the demonstrations that called for the overthrow of the regime” and setting up if an inquiry in his own organization to identify “irresponsible violations committed by players, administrators, and technicians during their participation in demonstrations that call for the overthrow of the regime and the insult of state symbols, the wise leadership, and the nation’s land.” Khalid Naim, the handball federation’s secretary general, said the group’s inquiry commission had identified culprits on the basis of Bahrain television footage of the athletes’ protest as well as evidence from other authorities.
Like the structural problems of world soccer governance, those of Asia remain unaddressed. Reform of the continent’s governance calls for a paradigm shift rather than a refinement of the status quo. This shift would have to involve expanding management at the club, national and regional level to involve all stakeholders including players and fans; the development of principles expressed in a charter and/or code of conduct that would govern the relationship between sports and politics; a revisiting of the criteria for the awarding of mega events to ensure inclusion of international human, labour and gender standards as well as greater public engagement in the national and urban decision making process, and enhanced transparency of the infrastructural requirements a host has to meet and the terms of the agreement between the sports association and the host.
The IOC has created a basis for a paradigm shift with the enunciation of its 2020 agenda based on the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention of Human Rights. The agenda amends the Olympic Charter to ensure that “the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Olympic Charter shall be secured without discrimination of any kind, such as race, color, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” The agenda mandates the IOC to include the amendment of its charter as well as “environmental and labor-related matters” in future host city contracts.
In a speech at the opening of the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, in September 2014, IOC president Thomas Bach tackled the taboo that has enabled FIFA and the AFC’s cozy relationship with autocracy by insisting that sports should acknowledge its ties to politics as well as big business but at the same time ensure that it maintains its neutrality. "In the past, some have said that sport has nothing to do with politics, or they have said that sport has nothing to do with money or business. And this is just an attitude which is wrong and which we cannot afford anymore. We are living in the middle of society and that means that we have to partner up with the politicians who run this world," Bach said. He appeared to be targeting among others the AFC’s and FIFA’s denial of the marriage between sports and politics by noting that allowing countries to set their own rules in football would mean that "international sport is over.”
By emphasizing the principle of human and other rights and putting the relationship between politics and sport on the table, Bach has opened the door to a long overdue debate within global sports and enhanced scrutiny of the AFC and FIFA. Bach and the IOC’s sincerity will be put to the test by how the IOC acts on its newly formulated principles. The AFC and Bahrain could prove to be an early litmus test if the United Kingdom’s Crown Prosecution were to decide to open an investigation into the human rights record of Bahraini NOC president Prince Nasser. The IOC’s reinvigorated embrace of human rights however puts a moral obligation on it even without a formal British legal investigation to ensure that its members have good standing in upholding the principles of the Olympic Charter.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Yang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture at the University of Wuerzburg in Germany, a syndicated columnist and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog as well as a forthcoming book with the same title.
 Velappan, P, Beyond Dreams, The Fascinating Story of The Blessed Life of Peter Velappan s/o Panliappan (Kuala Lumpur: Peter Velappan s/o Palaniappan, 2014): 241.  Dorsey, J. M., ‘Ground-breaking election of Saudi soccer chief masks Arab revolt fears’, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, 2012,