Raft of allegations overshadow today's AFC presidential vote
Rights abuses, graft and vote-buying claims have flown in lead-up to pick Asian president
Asia's troubled soccer body elects a new leader today after a bitter campaign dominated by claims and counter-claims of outside interference, and even allegations of human rights abuses.
Two years after vote-buying accusations prompted the eventual downfall of former president Mohamed bin Hammam, the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) is at risk of new controversy as delegates gather to choose his successor. All three candidates for the presidency have been accused, at some point, of either corruption or allowing outside powers to meddle in the vote, tempering hopes of a new era of openness and transparency.
Accusations, denials and counter-claims have flown thick in recent days, lending a testy atmosphere to proceedings.
If the battle has been hard-fought, it is because the stakes are high: the AFC, the world's biggest soccer confederation, has significant revenues and influence across a vast region stretching from the Middle East to Oceania.
In a possible indication of the vote's importance, Fifa president Sepp Blatter, who was instrumental in the fall of Bin Hammam, is present as representatives of the AFC's 46 members meet at a five-star hotel.
Three main candidates are in the running to complete Bin Hammam's term, which concludes in 2015. The Qatari stepped down last year after allegations of bribery and financial wrongdoing, and is barred from all soccer activities.
Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa is the favourite, but the Bahraini royal has been on the defensive over vote-buying allegations and claims that he oversaw the arrest of players in a crackdown on pro-democracy protests.
The UAE's Yousef al-Serkal is also confident about his chances, and has been perhaps the most persuasive about cleaning up the Asian game after vowing to reveal his allowances and launch a "whistle-blower" scheme. But Serkal is a friend of Bin Hammam, a connection which will worry some voters, especially after an accusation this week that the Qatari businessman was meddling in the election.
Worawi Makudi of Thailand, a long-standing but controversial presence, has faced corruption accusations in the past and is also a Bin Hammam ally.
Saudi Arabia's Hafez Ibrahim al-Medlej withdrew from the race yesterday after saying he did not want to dilute the Arab vote.