Kuala Lumpur. Asian football is facing a potentially momentous week as powerful regional chief Mohamed bin Hammam appeals against a lifetime corruption ban in a case with wide significance.
The hearing at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, will be closely watched in Kuala Lumpur where the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) has been under interim stewardship for nearly a year.
Bin Hammam, 62, is fighting allegations that he tried to buy FIFA delegates’ votes while campaigning to unseat the world body’s long-standing president, Sepp Blatter, in a leadership election last year.
Bin Hammam says the cash hand-outs were merely gifts, and he describes the charges and his punishment by FIFA as politically motivated.
The scandal earned him a life ban from football and was followed by the resignation of FIFA’s controversial vice president and Caribbean soccer chief Jack Warner. A host of other officials were punished over the bribery claims.
The revelations also refocused attention on Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup, in which bin Hammam played a key role, and sparked calls for reform of FIFA’s governance structure.
If bin Hammam wins his appeal, acting AFC president Zhang Jilong will step aside and the wealthy Qatari businessman will resume his leadership of the regional body, AFP understands.
He will also want to return to FIFA’s executive committee, a move that would inevitably cause tensions between the world body and its biggest confederation.
If he loses, bin Hammam’s football career is effectively over — and the AFC would face leadership elections either at an emergency congress or at its next scheduled gathering in May 2013.
Interim chief Zhang has not revealed whether he would stand, and no other candidates have declared their interest.
“A sense of togetherness and unity of purpose has never been more important in Asian football,” Zhang told AFC’s executive committee last month.
“2012 will be very challenging for me, and you, but I promise you that as the acting president I will go by the AFC statutes.”
Bin Hammam was seen as a moderniser of Asian football after overseeing the launch of the AFC Champions League and the admission of Australia into the regional body. But he also raised hackles with his leadership style.
The affable Zhang, China’s former soccer boss and considered a safe pair of hands, has stressed his current role is only temporary and has not outlined clear policies.
In an interview with AFP last year, he said his priorities were to “maintain stability, enhance unity, promote development, hand in hand together to manage the difficulties”.
Other potential leadership candidates are not known but Malaysia’s Prince Abdullah Ibni Sultan Ahmad Shah and UAE’s Yousuf Yaqoob Yousuf Al Serkal are both AFC vice presidents.
The body’s executive committee also includes Japan’s Kohzo Tashima and Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan, a FIFA vice president.
One important supporter of Zhang’s could be Blatter, who delivered a ringing endorsement of his leadership in front of AFC delegates at the body’s awards night in November.
“FIFA trusts you, we trust the new leadership of the Asian Football Confederation. And a special mention to the acting president, Mr. Zhang Jilong and his team — they do a great job,” Blatter told the ceremony.
Bin Hammam’s appeal will be heard on Wednesday and Thursday but the result is not expected to be released until later this month.