It is commonly known as the beautiful game, but the recent history of football in Asia has been decidedly ugly.
The Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) last president was banned from the sport for life in 2011 over allegations he bribed officials, while in the last year match-fixing scandals have rocked the game in South Korea, China, Lebanon and Malaysia.
The continent has barely had the chance to bask in Qatar’s victorious bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup either, which has faced accusations ranging from the vote being thrown to players not being able to perform in the Gulf state’s summer heat.
Emirati Yousuf Al Serkal is one of four men hoping to repair Asian football’s tarnished image across the bloc of 47 nations, with the vote on the new president of the continent’s football governing body to take place in Kuala Lumpur on May 2.
If he wins, Al Serkal will have a tough gig ahead of him. The AFC’s last president, Qatari Mohammed bin Hammam, was fired in 2011 following a probe into allegations he bribed Caribbean officials while running for presidency of FIFA, world football’s administrator. Bin Hammam has always insisted the charges were “trumped up”.
While campaigning, Al Serkal has been at pains to distance himself from bin Hammam. Al Serkal, currently president of the UAE Football Association and vice-president of the AFC, worked directly underneath Bin Hammam during his presidency, but insists that his close relationship with the disgraced Qatari will not work against him.
“We come from the same region, we came from neighbouring countries, we’ve known each other for a long time,” he admits. “Yes, I am a close friend of Bin Hammam, but that friendship had nothing to do with the work we used to do. I always had different ideas, opinions and conflicts in opinion with Bin Hammam.”
“My credibility... regardless of what actions were taken against whoever it was from AFC, it did not touch me at all,” Al Serkal reasserts.
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As if to underscore this point, much of Al Serkal’s presidential campaign has focused on driving corruption out of the federation and increasing transparency. His manifesto says that, if elected, he will lead by example in this regard and publicly declare all allowances and benefits he receives from the AFC, as well as expenditures incurred by his office.
Al Serkal vows that he will also introduce a whistle blower scheme that will allow football players and officials to report irregularities, such as match-fixing. The fiasco witnessed under Bin Hammam would not be repeated if he was in charge, is what Al Serkal seems to be saying.
Sterner governance at the AFC is sorely needed. Aside from the Bin Hammam issue, allegations of match-fixing across the continent have been rife, with officials in South Korea, Lebanon, Malaysia and China having faced recent accusations of rigging. Indonesian football has also been beset by its own crises after the administrative body of that country split in two, leading to threats of being expelled from FIFA altogether.
“What I’m introducing – governance – does not exist in AFC now,” he explains. “I’m introducing the idea and I will implement it immediately through creating a committee to take direct action... at the best level that can be done.”
The fact that three of the four candidates standing for AFC president are from the Gulf is something that could disadvantage not only Al Serkal, but Bahrain’s Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa and Saudi Arabia’s Hafez El Medlej. A trio of candidates from the same region could split the vote in West Asia between all three, which would ultimately favour Thailand’s candidate Worawi Makudi, who is widely expected to capitalise on broad support in East Asia.
Al Serkal says that he does not believe that the polls are big enough to accommodate all three Gulf candidates and anticipates that one will withdraw their candidacy before May 2.
“I’ve been hearing that our friend Dr Al Medlej from Saudi will be withdrawing. I’ve not heard it from here directly, officially. He’s hinting towards it, but he didn’t not come out directly and say it,” Al Serkal clamis. “I’ve been following the campaigns of the different candidates. Out of the three, Dr... is not doing a lot of movement, his campaign is very, very soft, which gives an indication to me that he will be withdrawing.”
If and when Al Medlej does drop out, Al Serkal says he believes he can count on the Saudi’s backing for his own campaign. “If he withdraws, I’m sure he will be withdrawing and supporting me.”
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Another political consideration in an election race that has been widely characterised by allegations of corruption and infighting is the role of the powerful Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), which administers Olympic sports across the continent.
The Kuwait-based OCA and its leader Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah have been public in their backing of Bahraini’s AFC candidate Sheikh Salman, in a move that has irked Al Serkal.
“It does not concern me... that they may influence the voting,” he says. “What concerns me most is the interference from a respectful organisation like OCA into the affairs of another organisation like AFC. We don’t see this happening anywhere [else] in the world.”
Al Serkal claims that the OCA has gone so far as to reserve hotel rooms for in Kuala Lumpur for delegates come election day on May 2, but the Emirati believes that such persistent lobbying will not be beneficial to Sheikh Salman. “What I’ve been hearing during my campaign is that there is a lot of negative attitude from the presidents of football federations in Asia towards this interference. I don’t believe it will help Sheikh Salman positively, it will be affecting his campaign negatively,” he says.
Bahraini candidate Sheikh Salman himself scoffed at the allegations he was a puppet for the OCA. “I’ll be my own man and I’ve got two years to prove that,” he told Reuters in a later interview. “I can say of the others that they are puppets of other regimes or other countries? Would that be right? I don’t think so.”
While the UAE’s Al Serkal may not have the backing of Sheikh Ahmed or the OCA, he claims there is an even bigger name who is gunning for him. During a visit to Geneva in March, Al Serkal met with FIFA president Sepp Blatter and claims that while the top dog at world football’s governing body stopped short of explicitly backing him, he is confident of Blatter’s support.
“I was looking for his blessing, and I definitely felt that I have it. My discussion with him was very open, and I left FIFA with much more comfort then when I entered,” Al Serkal says.
While it would not fall during his presidency if elected, which would only be a two-year term, the FIFA 2022 Qatar World Cup has become the defining event of Asian football since it was announced in 2010.
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Qatari authorities have since said that they will spend up to $115bn on new infrastructure over the next decade, including the construction of 12 state-of-the-art, air-conditioned stadia. Still, doubts have persisted over the logistics of the tiny, Gulf state’s capacity to host world football’s most prestigious tournament. Chief among concerns has been the completion of facilities on-time, as well issues surrounding summer temperatures that soar to 50 degrees Celsius, and consumption of alcohol in a country whose official religion is Islam.
Al Serkal suggests that the UAE would be ready to take responsibility for hosting parts of the World Cup if necessary, following a similar idea by UEFA boss Michel Platini, if for whatever reason the Qataris felt unable to fulfil their obligations.
“We will support them if they need any kind of support at any time, but as far as I know from my experience of the Qatar Football Federation, they are capable, they have the knowledge and the know-how,” he explains.
Any decision to change the host country for the tournament must come from FIFA, world football’s top governing body, rather than the Qataris or any other Gulf countries, Al Serkal reiterates.
“If it’s a different venue in a different country, the decision has to come from FIFA. It will not come from us, or the Qataris. If the Qataris would like us to help... it’s only if they will request that we are willing to.”
Even if the UAE takes no direct role in hosting World Cup 2022, Al Serkal believes that it should be held in January, when weather in Qatar is more manageable for both players and fans. Any change would be troublesome, however, due to the disruption this will likely cause domestic football leagues in Europe.
“If FIFA decides to change the timing from June to January, it will be a good idea,” Al Serkal asserts. “The players will not perform their best [in summer] - this will impact the image of the game.”
Al Serkal believes he is the favourite to take the presidency at next month’s election in Asia. Throughout his campaign, much of his focus has been on tackling the AFC’s image problem. By doing so, he believes, the continent can get down to what matters most: playing football and enjoying the beautiful game.
Six-pointer: Yousuf Al-Serkal’s campaign manifesto