BANGKOK – With Asian Football chief Mohammed Bin Hammam yesterday announcing his candidacy for the Presidency of world football’s oft-derided governing body FIFA, incumbent Sepp Blatter is making sure he presses the flesh in his likely rival’s backyard. Blatter visited Laos on Thursday, after trips to Timor-Leste and, controversially, Burma, where he met with the country’s new President Thein Sein, a former General and Prime Minister under the country’s military junta.
Speaking Kuala Lumpur on Friday, Qatar’s Bin Hammam announced his intention on Friday to challenge the Swiss holder of football’s top administrative job. “Today after careful study, consultation and consideration, armed with my love and passion for football, believing that our game is about fair competition, I have decided to contest,” the Asian Football Confederation president said, giving himself a 50-50 shot at winning.
Late in 2010, Qatar was the surprise winner in the contest to host football’s 2018 World Cup, despite concerns about playing matches in Qatar’s 40 celsius heat, holding off bids from Australia, Japan, South Korea and the United States.
Blatter was first elected as FIFA boss in 1998, and ran unopposed in the last leadership contest in 2007. He will seek a fourth four year term when the next vote takes place on June 1. An outside challenger is Grant Wahl, an American journalist writing for Sports Illustrated, who says that a the next President should not be a FIFA insider. However Wahl requires the backing of at least one national football federation to become an official candidate. When re-elected in 2007, Blatter was endorsed by only 66 of FIFA’s 207 member associations, and this time around, Bin Hammam’s run means that Blatter may have his work cut out to get votes from Asian football associations.To win the election, the contenders must convince two-thirds, or 138, of FIFA’s member nations to vote their way.
Blatter’s tour of southeast Asia is likely intended to lobby for support, in countries that might be expected to back the Qatari. Arriving in Timor-Leste’s capital Dili on Monday, Blatter was greeted by President Jose Ramos-Horta, who told him: “Our government is giving its support to young people in general and to sport in particular. Our youngsters are very committed to sport.”
Blatter replied, “This is my first trip to Timor-Leste, a relatively new member of FIFA.Your country is receiving the support of FIFA and will continue to do so. Our motto in this respect is a simple one: ‘Some countries may be little, but there is no such thing as a little associate member’.”
Timor-Leste is a former Portuguese colony, and Lusophone footballers are popular in the half-island state, where football is the most popular team sport. English Premiership football is popular in Burma, a former British colony, and Sen-Gen Than Shwe is described as Manchester United supporter.
According to an account in a leaked US diplomatic cable, in 2008 Burma’s military dictator pondered a investing US$1billion stake in the three-time European champions, but ultimately decided on establishing a domestic Burmese league instead. In what seemed to be an ‘offer you cannot refuse’ Than Shwe ordered regime cronies and businessmen to be the owners of professional soccer teams in the league in January 2009, offering incentives such as gem and jade mines, according to the cable released by Wikileaks.
There are parallels with Libya, whose sovereign wealth fund LAFICO currently holds a 3.1% stake in Italian giants Juventus, one-time rivals to Manchester United in European competition. Saadi al-Gadhafi, son of dictator Muammar al-Gadhafi, was a professional footballer before playing one match for Italian club Perugia. Saadi al-Gadhafi is now head of Libya’s Special Forces and is currently fighting against anti-regime rebels in Libya. Than Shwe’s grandson is a footballer for the Delta United team in Burma. The team is owned by Zaw Zaw, who invited Blatter to Burma and who doubles-up as Burma’s football chief, a conflict of interest usually not permitted by national football associations. Zaw Zaw runs the Max Myanmar Group of Companies, and is under US and EU sanctions due to his close ties to the Burmese Government.
Football commentators tend to downplay or dismiss overt links between football and wider political issues, but Blatter seems to disagree. “Football cannot exist alone without the political and government support and therefore it’s absolutely necessary that I’m going to meet your prime minister,” the FIFA President told a press conference before leaving Burma.
“I would say that Myanmar can play a very active role … let’s say at first in ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), then in Asia,” he said, though what precisely this meant was left unclear. is Burma will host the 2013 Southeast Asian Games, with stadia currently being built to stage the various events.
Blatter’s tenure has been dogged by controversy from the outset, with allegations of bribery surrounding his initial 1998 election campaign. Despite lambasting referees in public on occasion, he infamously scoffed at the notion of a replay of the controversial Ireland v France World Cup playoff in 2009, when France qualified ahead of the Irish after a blatant double handball by Thierry Henry – leading to the French winning goal – went unnoticed by Swedish referee Anders Frisk.
More recently, several senior FIFA officials were accused of corruption in a BBC Panorama exposé broadcast three days before the announcement of the 2018 World Cup hosting results. Blatter appeared indifferent to the allegations, in which which Nicolas Leoz, Issa Hayatou and Ricardo Teixeira accepted money from a sport marketing firm awarded lucrative World Cup rights, according to the BBC.
However, according China’s state news agency Xinhua, reporting on Blatter’s visit to Burma, “the 75-year-old is one of the most talented and experienced persons of international sports diplomacy and is totally committed to serving football, FIFA and the youth of the world.” Asked about the prospect of a challenge to his re-election, Blatter told media prior to his Asia trip that – “If I win then OK, if I lose I say ‘thank you’, then go away. You will have your new face and then we will see what will happen.(…) If there are some other candidates then we will face other candidates. That’s a democratic system. The world will not stop and football will not stop.”Show