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"The best interests of football" - What does it mean when it comes to the Asian Football Confederation elections and the Australian football federation?

Sheikh Salman Al-Khalifa (photo) stands unopposed at the upcomeng AFC presidentital elections. Photo: Tasnim News Agency/Wikimedia

02.04.2019

With the AFC elections coming up, former official within the Australian Football Federation and insider turned whistleblower on the Australian bid for the 2022 World Cup, Bonita Mersiades presents the history and context surrounding the current president of the AFC who stands unopposed at the election.

With the election for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Executive Committee to be held on 6 April, it is useful to give some history and context to the issues surrounding the man who has been President of AFC for the past six years and is set to continue in that role unopposed, not least because it is relevant to the recent international situation with Australian refugee, Hakeem Al-Araibi. 

When we consider the AFC President, Shaikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa of Bahrain, we must also talk of FIFA, and world and Asian football governance, because they are intertwined.

FIFA is governed by a Council of 37 people drawn from the regional confederations – of which Asia is one – and the elected FIFA President, Gianni Infantino. 

As the President of a regional confederation, Salman is automatically a Vice-President of FIFA.

Salman first put his hand-up for the President of the Asian confederation in 2009. 

Football Federation Australia (FFA) did not support him then. Instead, we voted for Mohamed Bin Hammam of Qatar – who became one of the most infamous names in world football.

But we have voted for Shaikh Salman as Asian president every time since: in 2013, 2015 and, as we know, again in 2019 at the elections this coming weekend. 

Salman eventually became president of the Asian confederation in 2013 after Bin Hammam was forced out.

However, even then, without most of us knowing about the allegations of human rights abuses, there were reasons enough why Australia should not have supported his election. 

Australian journalist and FIFA ethics committee member, the late Les Murray, referred Salman to the FIFA ethics committee in April 2009, stating he had evidence that Salman was buying votes for the 2009 campaign against Bin Hammam, of between USD$100,000 and $300,000 each. It was never investigated by FIFA.

According to media reports in August 2009, the Bahrain football association used funding of up to USD$1.7 million to cover costs incurred by Salman in the same campaign. The publication alleged that the funds came, in part, from development monies given to the Bahrain FA from FIFA – development monies long being one of the favoured ways of moving money around the football world, no questions asked. The Bahrain FA has never denied the reports, but they have attacked the individuals who wrote them. The claim was never investigated by FIFA. 

Salman also allegedly tried to squash a 2012 independent audit of AFC finances by PwC. That audit raised questions about possible bribery, non-transparency, tax evasion, and sanctions busting in the awarding of a $1 billion master rights agreement. Eventually, the PwC audit was leaked and it remains an important document in terms of cross-jurisdictional investigation by multiple authorities.

These are all issues the Australian football federation (FFA) knew about in 2013 and it is arguable that they ought to have been enough for Australia not to support Salman then.

But clearly potential bribery and corruption were not enough to deter the previous regime at FFA from supporting him. We were told by the then Chairman, Frank Lowy, that a vote for Salman was seen as being “in the best interests of football”.

The allegations of Salman’s involvement in human rights abuses arising from the Arab Spring peaceful protests, first came to attention in 2014 when the London-based Bahrain Institute of Rights and Democracy (or BIRD) attempted to have the allegations investigated by FIFA’s supposedly new and independent ethics committee headed by US lawyer, Michael Garcia.

By now, Hakeem Al-Araibi had made it to Australia as an asylum seeker.

Garcia was not interested. He wrote back to BIRD along the lines that allegations of human rights abuses were not within his area of responsibility. This is a man educated at a top US university, who has held senior positions in government and in swanky Manhattan law firms, and is now a Judge, who did not think human rights were relevant to his work - but Garcia is a whole other story also. 

It was only towards the end of 2015 that, with the help of Hakeem Al-Araibi, journalists and activists began to shine a light on these allegations globally. 

By this time, Salman had been elected again as head of Asia for a four-year term, but his ambition now extended beyond Asia into world football. 

He wanted to be FIFA President.

Backed by his good friend Sheikh Ahmad Al-Sabah of Kuwait, one of the most notorious people in world sport, and with financial support coming from a variety of sources within the Gulf, Salman was one of the favoured candidates. 

In parallel with the election, were some limited governance reforms being introduced to FIFA, one of which was that all FIFA Presidential and regional confederation candidates were required to undergo an integrity assessment. 

Salman’s candidacy for FIFA President, with the claims of human rights abuses and other financial violations, was a litmus test for the newly-defined integrity assessment, but FIFA being FIFA – the reforms are but skin deep – he passed.

While Al-Araibi’s story attracted scant interest in Australia in 2015, in the bigger, wider sporting world outside of Australia, the first FIFA Presidential election in 18 years without Sepp Blatter was big news. Al-Araibi’s story was compelling - not least because Shaikh Salman was the favoured candidate. 

Every one of the journalists who reported on the alleged human rights abuses, including the sole Australian-based journalist Simon Hill, received a cease and desist letter from Salman’s London law firm, Schillings. 

Of course, it is important to note that Salman denied he was involved in the abuse of any individual. However, he has never actually refuted the underlying facts of the matter. 

Throughout this period, FIFA was being advised by US law firm Quinn Emmanuel and PR company Teneo, and Swiss law firm Niederer Kraft Frey.

The  only priority of the two law firms was for FIFA to maintain its ‘victim status’ with the US and Swiss authorities who were investigating the many issues that had culminated in the May 2015 arrests and were snowballing out of their control. They held briefing sessions in the lead-up to the election to get the message out that the reforms would have to be adopted by FIFA in order to avoid losing its victim status under both US and Swiss laws. 

There was also a strong view communicated in these briefings that a Shaikh Salman win would present a risk to that victim status.

In the end Salman didn’t win the FIFA Presidential election, but he came very close. In the first round of voting, he received 85 votes to Gianni Infantino’s 88. Between rounds, there was a lot of work done to ensure the 34 votes that had gone to the other candidates in round 1 were directed to Infantino, which they mostly were.

By bringing the allegations of abuse to the attention of the world in 2015, Al-Araibi and those supporting him did much to help ensure that Salman was not elected President of FIFA.

That is why Al-Araibi was at risk in his honeymoon travels to Thailand in November last year.

There is no doubt that if the worst had happened in Thailand, and he had been repatriated to Bahrain, the consequences would have been horrific for Al-Araibi. This is why it was so imperative that, as a football community in particular but more broadly as the Australian community, there was unity in ensuring that Al-Araibi was saved, led by former Socceroo Craig Foster.

This brings us to the current situation with the news that FFA will once again support Shaikh Salman in his re-election as President of the AFC. 

Not for the first time, but for the third time. 2013, 2015 and 2019. 

Yet the FFA Chairman Chris Nikou – like his predecessors – states that it is in “the best interests of football” to vote for him. 

Those ‘best interests’ include Australia’s FFA wanting to obtain Salman’s support for their 2023 Women’s World Cup bid, and for the FFA Chairman himself to be elected to one of the nine vacant positions on the AFC executive.

It is this author’s view that, regardless of whether Australia wins or loses the women’s 2023 World Cup bid, FFA is hoist by its own petard by participating in it, when (a) an important part of its process remains opaque, and (b) they actively court, and are dependant on, the support of Shaikh Salman as the preferred Asian bidder.

The FFA Chairman’s view is one that many have mistakenly held in football for a long time – that you can do more from the inside, than outside.  

There is no evidence to support this assertion. After all, Australia has had senior representation on the AFC executive for ten years already through Moya Dodd. 

To the extent that anything has changed at FIFA, it is because people on the outside went out on a limb worldwide to advocate and agitate for change, not because of anyone inside. 

Sadly, it says much about the state of football governance at all levels – globally with FIFA, regionally with Asia and locally within Australia – that Shaikh Salman has no difficulty in passing the integrity test that declares him fit for election, and will continue to be re-elected as head of the Asian confederation. A man with multiple allegations against him of human rights abuses and financial malfeasance dating back to at least 2009, none of which have been investigated. A man who recused himself from Hakeem’s case in January when it is a requirement of both FIFA and AFC statutes to uphold human rights. And a man who didn’t even attend the FIFA Council meeting in Miami earlier this month, when important decisions were made about the shape and nature of future football tournaments, for reasons we can only speculate. 

This is not someone football should have as a leader in the Asian region. This is not someone Australia should rely upon for support for a World Cup bid.

This is not the best interests of football. 

This article is an extended version of a presentation Bonita Mersiades recently gave to a forum at the University of Technology Sydney organised by the Gulf Institute of Democracy and Human Rights (GIDHR) which is affiliated with BIRD. Other speakers included representatives of GIDHR, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch as well Hakeem Al-Araibi and Craig Foster.

This version was first published here and is republished on www.playthegame.org with kind permission from the author

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