Bahrain 2, Qatar 0 in Asian football elections
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP)
In a stunning double election defeat for Qatari interests, Bahrain royal family member Sheik Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa became the top figure in Asian football Thursday.
Bahrain now has a key power broker within the world's most popular sport just weeks after its hosting of a Formula One Grand Prix was again the focus of pro-democracy protests after two years of turmoil in the island kingdom.
Sheik Salman won a landslide victory to become president of the Asian Football Confederation, then beat Qatar's 2022 World Cup organizing chief Hassan Al Thawadi to claim a vacant seat on FIFA's executive committee.
In both polls to formally replace his old rival Mohamed bin Hammam, Sheik Salman defeated friends and former associates of the ousted Qatari official. FIFA expelled bin Hammam for alleged corruption.
The ballot results suggested Sheik Salman's campaign - strongly backed by Kuwaiti sports officials and helped late Wednesday by Saudi Arabia's candidate withdrawing from the presidential race - was unaffected by allegations since 2011 that he failed to protect Bahrain national team players from human rights abuses after protesting his family's rule.
''If anybody has a proof (that) the Bahrain Football Association has violated the statutes of FIFA or the AFC let them present it, otherwise we move to the next question,'' Sheik Salman said at his victory news conference.
Replying to a reporter's question, the new president overruled an AFC spokesman's dismissal of the question.
''I have no problem, I will answer that,'' Sheik Salman said. ''You talk about allegations but the question is do you have proof? If someone talks about government, I don't think this is our business in football. We are football people.''
The 47-year-old sheik left the conference room at a Kuala Lumpur hotel shielded by his entourage.
Earlier, FIFA President Sepp Blatter left the election venue unaided and was quickly swarmed over by television news crews and reporters. He suggested that Sheik Salman's second victory was required by protocol befitting a new president, rather than a snub for Qatar.
''(Tomorrow) they will change the statutes and you will see that they will introduce that the president of the confederation must have a seat'' on the FIFA board, Blatter told reporters. ''They did it already today.''
Sheik Salman beat Hassan Al Thawadi by 28 votes against 18 to earn a four-year term on Blatter's executive committee.
A half hour earlier, he comprehensively defeated two bin Hammam allies - Yousuf al-Serkal of the United Arab Emirates and FIFA board member Worawi Makudi of Thailand - in a poll of 46 member federations.
Sheik Salman got 33 votes in the first ballot, having needed 31 for outright victory. Makudi got seven votes and al-Serkal six.
When Sheik Salman's presidential vote tally was announced, his supporters' cheers in the ballroom of a Kuala Lumpur hotel drowned out the announcement of his rivals' totals.
He later said the scale of victory was decided in the final 24 hours of campaigning some votes
''Once you reach that stage people get the sense of who's leading, and I'm sure people want to be with the winner,'' he said.
Sheik Salman's football career had already prospered despite the turmoil in Bahrain. In late-2011, FIFA and the AFC appointed him to the 2014 World Cup organizing committee based in Zurich.
Thursday's election formally replaced bin Hammam, who was investigated by FIFA since May 2011 over allegations of election bribery while challenging Blatter, then his management of AFC contracts and bank accounts.
''Now it's my personal duty and moral obligation to lead and reunite our family,'' Sheik Salman told delegates in his acceptance speech. ''We have to ensure AFC funds, your funds, are being managed according to good principles.''
The new president set a target of FIFA's congress in Mauritius starting May 27 to report on the status of the AFC's eight-year, $1 billion marketing rights agreement with World Sports Group.
Sheik Salman gets 20 months in office to complete bin Hammam's original presidential mandate. The next scheduled election is in January 2015, ahead of the Asian Cup in Australia.
Blatter cautioned in a speech before voting that Asian football must still work to heal its divisions and rebuild its reputation.
''I would identify this restart as an intermediary restart,'' Blatter said. ''Because then the right start will be in two years in 2015 and now you will have two more years to put your house in such an order.''
Sheik Salman's victory comes exactly four years after he suffered a setback to bin Hammam in the same city.
Then, bin Hammam retained his FIFA board seat by just two votes after a bitterly fought contest marred by accusations of vote-buying on both sides, plus undue influence on the Bahraini's behalf by Olympic officials across Asia.
This election saw similar sniping. The Kuwaiti head of the Olympic Council of Asia, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, was seen as a key figure in Sheik Salman's camp, which alleged that bin Hammam broke the terms of his FIFA ban by lobbying for his friends.
To guard against accusations Thursday, the 46 voters wrote their ballots in open booths on the main stage.
''I have seen total transparency,'' Blatter praised afterwards.
Since FIFA first suspended bin Hammam, Chinese official Zhang Jilong served as interim AFC leader and FIFA delegate. He did not contest Thursday's elections.
Despite his defeat, Al Thawadi could soon get another route to a seat on FIFA's executive committee, because FIFA this week imposed an eight-year ban on bin Hammam ally Vernon Manilal Fernando, one of the four Asian delegates.
The Sri Lankan official has said he will appeal, preventing the AFC from seeking a permanent replacement for a FIFA mandate that also runs through 2015. However FIFA and the AFC could agree to seek an interim replacement, and Al Thawadi would be a likely candidate.
With the Gulf now represented at FIFA by Jordan, through Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, and Bahrain, Sheik Salman declined to promote Al Thawadi's candidacy.
''We would like to see a good balance between all regions,'' the president said. ''The Qatar World Cup is a responsibility for us all (in Asia). It doesn't have to be a Qatari who is in the FIFA seat to serve it.''