Mohamed bin Hammam. Photo: AP

Bin Hammam’s presence felt at Asian elections

Expelled by Fifa for alleged corruption, Mohamed bin Hammam is barred from attending elections on Thursday to finally replace him as Asia’s top football official.

Still, the Qatari’s career is inevitably linked with all candidates seeking to succeed him as the Asian Football Confederation president and member of the Fifa executive committee.

“I know maybe four of us are calling him and he is receiving calls from everyone,” presidential candidate Hafez Al Medlej of Saudi Arabia said. “He is an icon of football.”

Bin Hammam has said little since Fifa initially suspended him in May 2011, and less since Fifa imposed a life ban last December during investigations into his alleged mismanagement of AFC contracts and bank accounts.

“It looks to me a bit late,” he wrote April 7 on Twitter to a writer seeking an interview. “I don’t want to disturb my family life anymore.”

A request for an interview through Bin Hammam’s lawyer in the United States was also declined.

Yet bin Hammam, as Asia’s elected football leader since 2002 and a key factor inside Fifa during Qatar’s stunning successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup, is connected to those with ambition to follow him.

The presidential contest brought three of his former allies - Yousuf al-Serkal of the United Arab Emirates, longtime Fifa board colleague Worawi Makudi of Thailand and Al Medlej - against a sworn rival, Bahrain’s Sheik Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa.

Exactly four years ago, bin Hammam edged Sheik Salman in a bitterly contested election to retain the Fifa board seat he held since 1996. Defeat could have left Qatar lacking the leverage needed to help win the World Cup vote 19 months later.

It’s Qatar vs. Sheik Salman again this week in Kuala Lumpur. The Bahraini royal is also standing for the four-year Fifa mandate against the young lawyer who fronted the World Cup bid and now leads the organising committee, Hassan Al Thawadi.

“Mohammed bin Hammam did a lot for Asia and Asian football,” Al Thawadi said. “On my travels I encounter federations and associations across the region that respect him for he what he achieved. But things must change and it is time to move forward.”

Sheik Salman suggests Asia should advance with him, representing the clearest break with the past.

“People have a choice to leave matters as they are and choose a candidate from the existing administration or they can choose a change that I can bring to the whole continent,” he told reporters in Bahrain last week.

Under Sheik Salman’s leadership, he promises, the AFC’s 47 member countries and Fifa will be kept “aware of all the wrongdoing in the past and how we can correct things.”

That wrongdoing was alleged last July in an AFC-commissioned audit which questioned a $1 billion, eight-year rights deal made by bin Hammam with World Sport Group, contracts with Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera and US$14 million paid by Saudi interests in 2008 into AFC accounts “purportedly for the personal use of its president.”

Fifa was investigating bin Hammam for “conflicts of interest” when he resigned. Fifa expelled him anyway, five months after bin Hammam won a Court of Arbitration for Sport appeal to overturn an earlier life ban for allegedly bribing Caribbean voters during his 2011 challenge to unseat Sepp Blatter as president of football’s world governing body.

Al-Serkal believes bin Hammam erred by aiming for the top job soon after a divisive election in Asia.

“My opinion, which I told him, it was not the right time to run for Fifa president,” al-Serkal, the UAE Football Association president, said in Zurich last month. “After the ‘09 election, between bin Hammam and Sheik Salman, I believe bin Hammam should have concentrated on the unification of the continent.”

Instead, bin Hammam lost all his football positions and his former AFC deputy Zhang Jilong of China occupied his presidential and Fifa seats on an interim basis for the past two years.

Thursday’s presidential victor will complete the final two years of bin Hammam’s mandate, though without a place on Fifa’s board, and then must stand again in 2015.

The former leader has returned to his businesses in Doha, and on March 26 resumed posting messages on Twitter, now almost exclusively in Arabic.

“I have not spoken or seen bin Hammam for a long time,” Al Thawadi wrote to the AP, “but wish him the best in his future endeavours.”