Dogfight between Blatter and Bin Hammam puts FIFA election in doubt


World soccer body FIFA’s June 1 presidential election campaign has erupted into open warfare between incumbent Sepp Blatter and his challenger, Asian Football Confederation (AFC) chief Mohamed Bin Hammam.

The bitter infighting that has produced a FIFA investigation into alleged corruption by Mr. Hammam and a call by the AFC head that Mr. Blatter too be investigated raises the question whether FIFA can legitimately hold a presidential elections with allegations of corruption swirling around both candidates.

Irrespective of whether FIFA goes ahead with the election at next week’s general assembly, the election campaigns of both candidates as well as mounting questioning of the vote in December that awarded the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 tournament to Qatar lays bare the extent of the governance and reputational crisis engulfing FIFA. Nine of FIFA’s 24 executive committee members face accusations of corruption and improper behavior, two of which already have been sanctioned.

In the latest salvo to be fired, AFC Vice President Yousuf Al Serkal has come out swinging in favor of Mr. Bin Hammam, a Qatari national with close ties to the Gulf’s state’s ruling family, who is campaigning on a troubled platform that calls for greater FIFA transparency and blames three-time incumbent president Mr. Blatter for the crisis the organization is facing.

Mr. Blatter is “feeling the threat of Asia just because they find that Mohamed Bin Hammam is much more worthy of taking over Fifa. They are attacking Asian football decency without knowing what they are talking about,” Mr. Serkal said in an interview with the Gulf News.

The wave of allegations surrounding the awarding of World Cup tournaments has been further fuelled by a match-fixing scandal disclosed by investigative reporter Zaihan Mohammed of Singapore’s The New Paper. One of the games allegedly fixed by a group of Singaporean match fixers was a friendly in the UAE emirate Sharjah in March between the national teams of Jordan and Kuwait.

FIFA asserts that game that ended in a 1:1 draw was similar to games in Turkey and elsewhere suspected of involving match-fixing. A Singaporean has been arrested in Finland on suspicion of having fixed the matches, but Mr. Serkal asserts that the allegations are an attempt to tarnish the AFC and its chairman, Mr. Bin Hammam.

“There are only two indications here: either the Fifa person doesn't know what is happening in Asian football or the aim is that they only want to disrupt Asian decency. The main thing here would be to see what the objective is behind ‘fixing’ such a match between two Arab countries. This is a figment of his [Blatter] imagination. Blatter has merely created such a story as he is feeling the heat from the Asian challenge,” Mr. Serkal said.

Mr. Serkal accused Mr. Blatter of manipulating the Fifa Ethics Committee “as a tool against people who care about football.” He charged that Mr. Blatter had employed the same tactic against Confederation of African Football (CAF) president Issa Hayatou when he challenged the FIFA president in a past presidential election.

Mr. Hayatou is suspected of being one of two FIFA executive committees to have received $1.5 million from Qatar in exchange for their vote last December.

Mr. Bin Hammam is scheduled to be questioned on Sunday by the FIFA Ethic Committee together with the head of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) Jack Warner on the charges that they colluded in bribing Caribbean Football Union (CFU) leaders to win votes for the Asian football boss in the FIFA presidential election. Both men have denied the allegations.

Chuck Blazer, the US member of the FIFA executive committee, charged that Messrs. Bin Hammam and Warned had offered CFU members at a meeting in Trinidad on May 10 and 11 $40,000 in cash for development projects in exchange for their votes for Mr. Bin Hammam.

In response, Mr. Bin Hammam asserts that the timing of the accusations so close to the FIFA presidential election suggests they are part of a plan to “damage” him “and “force him to withdraw as a candidate for the FIFA presidency.”

Mr. Bin Hammam has threatened to take legal action if he is not cleared of any wrongdoing.

Mr. Bin Hammam’s election campaign appeared to be lagging even before the latest round of corruption allegations. The AFC chief couldn’t compete against Mr. Blatter’s multibillion-dollar public relations machine. His platform moreover consisted mostly of slogans with little indication of how he intended to implement reform of FIFA and repair its tarnished image. Mr. Bin Hammam also seemed to be uncritically toeing the Qatari line on the allegations of corruption. Qatar defensively denied all allegation and only this week said for the first time that it would welcome an independent investigation.

The escalating governance crisis in world soccer threatens not only Mr. Blatter and Mr. Bin Hammam’s presidential ambitions. It also casts a shadow over the strategy of Qatar and other Gulf states to turn themselves into global venues for big sporting events that enhance their international standing and national pride and attract tourist dollars. The FIFA scandal could lead to the awarding of the World Cup to Qatar being cancelled if the allegations of bribery by the Gulf state are proven.

Qatar’s successful bid has won it enemies among the world’s major soccer powers who have fuelled the corruption allegations and raised questions about the viability of its hosting the World Cup in the country’s desert heat as well as it political instability, spotty human rights records, and ability to supply the infrastructure and services needed to host the world’s largest sporting event.

(James M. Dorsey is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: [email protected])