Exclusive: Asian football election carve up 

11 April 2019

Photo: Getty Images The OCA president, Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah, who stepped down from all positions in football, is alleged to have played a key role in lobbying Asian Football Confederation elections last week.

List of preferred candidates circulated among voters last Friday before Asian Football Confederation (AFC) elections.

15 out of 15 candidates returned.

Qatar allies fill key positions as emirate battles for World Cup host status.

James Corbett corbett@offthepitch.com

Offthepitch.com has uncovered evidence of apparent vote rigging ahead of last weekend’s Asian Football Confederation (AFC) elections.

A list containing 15 candidates favoured by the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), who have often stood accused of interfering in the AFC affairs, was circulated among voting delegates last Friday, the night before elections for a variety of key committees, including five seats on FIFA’s ruling body, the FIFA council. 

Some delegates present at the electoral congress have said that they were pressured to vote according to the list.

A copy of the list came into Offthepitch.com’s possession on the evening before the election. All 15 OCA backed candidates were successfully elected to their respective positions the following day.

Implicated in US Department of Justice (DoJ) bribery investigations

Sheikh Salman, the AFC president since 2013, was also re-elected unopposed for another 4 year term at the congress.

The OCA president, Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah, who stepped down from all positions in football after being implicated in US Department of Justice (DoJ) bribery investigations in 2017, is alleged to have played a key role in lobbying.

“He was involved very closely,” one delegate told offthepitch.com. “How can someone who has had to give up his positions because of scandal be involved so closely? It seems like a violation of AFC guidelines.”

The delegate further alleged that Sheikh Ahmad operated from a hotel adjacent to where the congress was staged in Kuala Lumpur. One candidate was allegedly pressured into withdrawing their candidacy following a meeting with the Sheikh but refused to do so.

The OCA’s reputation was tainted in 2017 when Richard Lai, a former football official from Guam, said in a plea bargain with the US Department of Justice that the head of the OCA — unnamed in the plea but identifiable by the title as Sheikh Ahmad— transferred nearly $1million of illicit payments to him through an intermediary to rig previous AFC elections. 

Lai, who was a member of FIFA’s audit and compliance committee, was banned from football for life, but still awaits custodial sentencing. Sheikh Ahmad denied wrongdoing but resigned from FIFA within days of the publication of the DOJ indictment. 

Questions independence of the AFC elections

The revelation of the OCA list further calls into question the independence of the AFC elections and the way in which outside bodies have been able to influence its future. Article 2.2 of the AFC electoral statutes stipulates that it “shall manage its affairs independently and with no influence from third parties.” 

The list has further significance as it seemingly favours Qatari allies, as the emirate faces a regional political and economic blockade and challenges within the football community to its hosting of the 2022 World Cup. 

The AFC has denied to Offthepitch.com that it has received any complaints about the election or that OCA delegates were accredited to its congress.

The Asian Football Confederation has received no complaints from its Member Associations or from any candidate on the manner in which the elections were conducted," wrote AFC in statement

It told Offthepitch.com in a statement that it had held “fair, honest and credible elections”.

"The Asian Football Confederation has received no complaints from its Member Associations or from any candidate on the manner in which the elections were conducted and we can also confirm that no representatives from the Olympic of Asia were accredited for the 29th AFC Congress.

"All AFC elections are organised and supervised by the AFC Electoral Committee who are an independent body responsible for ensuring that the campaigns of all Candidates for election are conducted in accordance with the fundamental principles set out in the AFC Statutes and the AFC Electoral Code and Guidelines.

"The purpose of these Electoral Guidelines is to ensure fair, honest and credible elections. In addition, the FIFA Statutes, the FIFA Governance Regulations and any other FIFA regulations are applicable to the elections to the FIFA Council and two members of the FIFA Governance Committee attended the Congress to monitor the elections of the FIFA Council members"

Tainted history

The OCA is a Kuwait-based regional body set up in 1982, by Sheikh al-Fahad al-Sabah as a regional umbrella body of National Olympic Committees. Taken over by Sheikh Fahad’s son, Sheikh Ahmad al-Sabah, following his death in 1990, it has become an immensely powerful and controversial broker in sports politics, winning allies by providing handouts and development money to sports federations.

In the wake of the 2017 DoJ scandal Sheikh Ahmad stepped down from his position on the FIFA council before football’s ruling body could investigate the claims itself. The Kuwaiti nevertheless continued with his sprawling array of positions in the Olympic movement that continue to make him one of the most powerful men in global sport.

The run up to the elections was dogged by complaints about impropriety

Last week at the AFC Congress in Kuala Lumpur, despite being linked to a previous cash for votes scandal and stepping aside from his roles in football, Ahmad watched from the sidelines, but delegates said his presence was conspicuously felt, particularly in back rooms and corridors where deals are hatched.

One accused him of “pressuring” voters and said that it was “ridiculous” that he was allowed to attend given the severity of allegations made against him. 

Sulphurous reputation

Certainly the antics of some of the delegates did little to dispel the AFC’s sulphurous reputation. The secretary of the Pakistan Federation, Col Ahmed Yar Khan Lodhi used his WhatsApp story to request the account details of a regional FA chief. An innocent query? Maybe. But then the Pakistan FA was previously accused of photographing ballot papers to show who they voted for in a previous AFC election. 

The run up to the elections was dogged by complaints about impropriety. South Korea’s FA asked the Asian Football Confederation’s election oversight panel to investigate an offer of free trips for voters to visit Qatar, and complained that a Filipino candidate, Mariano V. Araneta, Jr., had been given access to a Qatari private jet to travel to voters in eight different countries. This had an estimated value of up to $100,000.

The complaint requested “the suspension of the candidacies of the individuals being investigated pending the completion of the investigation.” The AFC ignored his request. 

South Korea’s candidate Mong Gyu Chung, a former CEO of Hyundai who was standing for the FIFA council, was not on the OCA list of preferred candidates and defeated in his bid to join FIFA’s top table. Both the Qatari candidate Saoud Al Mohannadi and Araneta Jr were, and succeeded in their bids. 

The fates of these candidates mirrored the pattern of the elections. No Saudi or UAE candidate prevailed and their supporters were often expunged: Chung had sided with the Saudis in recent football political games; while Al Mohannadi retained his AFC vice-presidency and gained a seat on the FIFA Council. Araneta Jr is said to be like many of the 15 candidates on the list: sympathetic to Qatar as it faces a regional political and economic blockade as it works to stage the 2022 World Cup.

A good day for Qatar

Qatar’s status as a solitary host of that tournament is under threat by the FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, who is pushing hard for the 2022 finals to host 48 teams. This would involve Qatar sharing the tournament, probably with Kuwait and Oman – something that it privately says it will resist. FIFA is due to make a decision on this in June and on Saturday Gianni Infantino repeated calls for a tournament expansion.

“It will be a nice achievement if the first World Cup with 48 teams is played in Asia,” he said.

Former AFC president Mohamed bin Hammam was suspended — and later banned for life — for his part in a cash for votes scandal

Nevertheless, the election of Al Mohannadi and friends is significant because it brings Qatar back to FIFA’s ruling council for the first time since 2011, when former AFC president Mohamed bin Hammam was suspended — and later banned for life — for his part in a cash for votes scandal. In a febrile atmosphere, in which an expansionist and unpredictable FIFA president has often got his own way, the addition of top level political allies should help Qatar as it faces a decision on whether it will have to share the tournament.

Infantino at the weekend said Sheikh Salman’s unopposed re-election as AFC president will help Asia progress. An uncontested election was “important to show a united football family in Asia,” said the FIFA leader, although the apparent acrimony that prevailed in Kuala Lumpur would suggest otherwise.