Asian Football Confederation (AFC)

Football mourns Malaysia’s Peter Velappan – the peace-broker who helped Japan and Korea stage the first-ever co-hosted World Cup

  • The 83-year-old died on Saturday, having been general secretary of the Asian Football Confederation from 1978 to 2007
  • Velappan was a pioneer in commercialising the sport in Asia when he agreed to take on an official marketing partner in the early 90s
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 October, 2018, 1:44pm
UPDATED : Monday, 22 October, 2018, 2:18pm

Peter Velappan’s earliest memory and his most prized one both involve Japan. He witnessed as a child Japanese invaders sweeping across Malaya in 1941 during the second world war. More than six decades later, he was in Japan watching the World Cup final between Brazil and Germany, having played a pivotal role in ensuring Japan and South Korea would, in 2002, become the first co-hosts of the World Cup.

Velappan, the former Asian Football Confederation general secretary, died on Saturday at the age of 83, leaving behind a powerful legacy in Asian football. The sport in Asia is worth billions, the top leagues in the region attract some of the biggest crowds and Asian players are making an impact on the world game.

For many years, he was the face of Asian football and once boasted that he was “the most famous Malaysian in the world” after leading out the teams at the World Cup final in front of billions of viewers.

The 2002 World Cup was among his most important contributions to world football. Japan and South Korea wanted to host the finals and the rivalry was nasty. It was Velappan who stepped into the breach, suggesting they co-host the tournament.

Eventually, they agreed, enabling the World Cup to come to Asia for the first time.

Much of the success that Asian football enjoys now can be traced back to the work of Velappan during his time as AFC general secretary, from 1978 to 2007. Indeed, his 1992 decision to take on a marketing partner for the AFC was unprecedented in Asia. It would lay the foundations for what would eventually become a billion-dollar organisation and a template for governing bodies across the region.

In 1993, a US$10 million deal was signed with AFC Marketing – a relationship that would continue under the latter’s various iterations until next year, when Chinese company DDMC is due to take over with the promise of US$2 billion in revenue for the regional body.

“Velappan was the general secretary of the AFC in 1992 when that decision was made,” said Charlie Charters, former head of sales for AFC Marketing and now with MATCH Hospitality. “It was his vision that saw AFC become the first regional body to have a multi-event commercial programme.

“He also played a big part in Japan and South Korea co-hosting the World Cup.”

Velappan’s tenure was not without controversy. One of the biggest was when he organised a walkout of Asian football delegates at the 1999 Fifa Congress in Los Angeles because they were unhappy with Asia’s allocation of spots for the 2002 World Cup.

One of his greatest traits was his ability to smile and stay calm in the face of adversity. That was never better illustrated than at a dramatic AFC Exco meeting in the late 90s when then president, Sultan Ahmed Shah, was plotting to have him sacked.

The president was ready to throw the book at Velappan but the general secretary was never required to lift a finger to defend himself. One by one, the Exco members spoke up in defence of Velappan and, at the end, demanded that Sultan Ahmed Shah withdraw the motion to sack him.

The president had no choice but to agree. At this, Velappan looked up for the first time and continued with the meeting agenda as if nothing happened.

Not only was Velappan still in a job but he had more support than ever before.

It was this kind of demeanour that helped him bring peace between bitter rivalries within AFC – whether it was East Asia vs West Asia, or the many issues between Japan, South Korea and China.

“I supposed I remembered him most for his PR skills,” said Malaysian Michelle Chai, a former AFC official who is now general manager of the Badminton Association of Malaysia.

“It was amazing how cool he was at a time when the East was always having a go at the West and vice versa. Same thing with Japan vs Korea vs China. But he somehow managed them together.”

Then there was the 2004 Asian Cup in China, when Velappan criticised the Chinese fans for jeering at AFC officials and also slammed the facilities and organisation. Chinese officials were furious and Velappan later apologised, saying he misunderstood why the Chinese fans were booing.

However, the next day he was seen at an event in Jinan, Shandong, smiling and joking with media and showing no remorse whatsoever.

He later whispered: “The organisers needed a kick. They needed to do something and now, they have.”

His later years at the AFC were difficult. The third president he worked under, Qatari Mohamed Bin Hammam, was more of a hands-on leader than his previous two bosses. Often, their work would conflict but Velappan supported Bin Hammam’s Vision Asia project – to enhance the development of football across the region – wholeheartedly.

The relationship virtually broke down during Bin Hammam’s second term as president, when it was clear that the Qatari would be targeting the Fifa presidency.

“He was a very good president in the first four years but after that, he was more interested in the power,” Velappan would say.

Velappan retired from the AFC in 2007 but returned briefly in public to support Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa – the sitting AFC president – when he challenged, and failed, to dislodge Bin Hamman from his Fifa Exco seat.

He said after his retirement that he would write his memoirs and play more golf, for which he was a scratch handicapper at his peak.

“I don’t know if his memoirs ever were published but he sent me the manuscript,” said Charters. “There was one piece of colour that I liked and it was his first memory, of being raised on a rubber plantation and watching the British farmers and managers packing up and leaving.”

According to Charters, Velappan had written: “[I remember] the deathly silence and confusion that followed because none of the rubber plantations could work without their oversight. And then over the hills and through the surrounding jungle emerged the Japanese invaders.”