Hopping between Durban, Port Elizabeth, Bloemfontein and Johannesburg this week, Asian Football Confederation president Mohamed bin Hammam has been only too happy to talk about the encouraging Asian performances at the World Cup. But one thing off-limits is discussion about his possible interest in Fifa's top job.
Next year, Sepp Blatter's 12-year reign as president of soccer's governing body will come under scrutiny in elections at the 2011 Fifa Congress. And while Hammam has previously hinted at his interest in taking over the position, he's now gone mysteriously quiet about his intentions.
'No comment,' was the response when the 61-year-old Qatari was asked if he planned to run against 74-year-old Blatter, who announced his intention to continue for a fourth term last October because he hadn't finished his 'vision'.
In February, Hammam expressed his view that two terms should be set as the limit for any Fifa president because after eight years 'he's looking after everything else other than football'.
After once vowing never to go for the presidency while the Swiss official was in office, his attitude noticeably changed in the wake of elections at the 2009 AFC Congress in Kuala Lumpur, where Hammam only narrowly held onto his Fifa seat after Blatter and Uefa president Michael Platini reportedly conspired against him, supporting Bahraini rival Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa. Hammam would later lament that his best friends had let him down, an apparent reference to Blatter.
The once-warm friendship further deteriorated at last December's Fifa executive committee meeting in South Africa, where the pair clashed over the decision to cover huge losses from the Under-17 World Cup with a US$30 million grant to the cash-strapped Nigerian Football Association.
But the upcoming decision on which nation will host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups is seen as a stepping stone to a thawing of relations - and a possible behind-the-scenes truce.
The first hint of this was the surprise announcement this month at the AFC Extraordinary Congress in South Africa that Asia's ruling body would back a European country - believed to be Blatter's preference - to stage the 2018 World Cup ahead of one of its own nations. 'Just as Africa had Asia's full support in winning the rights to this World Cup, I want to assure Europe on behalf of the AFC that we recognise and support their desire to host the 2018 edition,' Hammam said.
He added that the AFC should instead focus on staging the 2022 World Cup and hoped that members of Fifa's executive committee would get behind the bids of Australia, South Korea, Japan and Hammam's birth nation, Qatar. Fifa will make its decision on the hosts for 2018 and 2022 in December.
'There could be some deals done behind closed doors before December,' an Asian football insider said. 'If Hammam gets assurances that 2022 will be awarded to Asia and preferably Qatar, he could agree to back off in challenging Blatter for the Fifa presidency.' Indeed, Hammam's refusal to even discuss his possible run for football's top job represents a dramatic shift in what just a few months ago appeared to be an unbridled interest.
While he publicly had not announced his intention to run, privately he was giving all the signs he was making the early manoeuvrings in a full-blooded campaign. At an appearance on an Asian TV network late last year, one of his assistants told the producers to feel free to refer to Hammam as 'the man who could be the next Fifa president'.
But such talk now is taboo. 'A few months ago when you asked Hammam about going for the Fifa presidency, he would say he'd probably consider it closer to the elections,' the insider said. 'But now, there's just silence on the subject.'
Watching every match involving AFC teams, Hammam has been pleased with Asia's first week at the World Cup, which saw encouraging group wins for South Korea and Japan and a respectable performance by North Korea against Brazil. At the opening South Korean game against Greece in Port Elizabeth, he put any previous conflicts aside to sit alongside Platini and South Korean Fifa vice-president Chung Mong-joon, a former arch-rival and another possible candidate for the presidency in 2011.
'Watching football with friends is always a pleasure,' he said. 'A beautiful win in a beautiful stadium is how I will remember Korea's victory. I hope some of our Asian teams will reach the round of 16 and I see no reason why they shouldn't reach the next stage,' he said.
There had been speculation that Asia's 4.5 spots for the finals might come under review if there was a repeat of the region's poor 2006 World Cup in Germany, where no nation that had come through AFC qualifying advanced beyond the groups. But Hammam insisted: 'Asia's spots in the World Cup are, and will be, fully protected. I don't respond to such speculation.'