The motto of the Asian Football Confederation is ”The Future is
Yet a series of recent controversies indicate the game seems
unable to shake off its unhappy history of corruption, bribery and
political interference across the continent.
Asian soccer may be making great strides in some areas – luring
top quality players – but the problems off the pitch still slow
development, with Syria’s expulsion from the 2014 World Cup
qualifiers being yet another example.
In its second-round win over Tajikistan in July, Syria selected
George Mourad despite the fact that the player had represented
Sweden earlier in his career and was therefore ineligible.
The Syrian Football Association queried the decision and said
FIFA’s ban was politically motivated.
Political interference is endemic on multiple levels, according
to James Dorsey, a senior fellow at Nanyang Technological
University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the
author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.
”Soccer in West Asia, a region dominated by autocratic regimes,
constitutes both an image booster and a threat to governments,”
Dorsey told The Associated Press.
”As a result, political interference is part of the game.
Across the region countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar witness a
rapid turnover of coaches and trainers because they approach them
as a zero-sum game.
”Ironically, Syria – prior to the eruption of this year’s
anti-government protest – had actually witnessed a degree of
improved professionalism. But with professional matches suspended
because of the protests and a brutal government crackdown,
embattled president Bashar al Assad has regained a degree of
In recent years, FIFA has suspended the federations of Kuwait,
Iran, Yemen and Iraq for political interference in their national
Bahrain ran the risk of receiving a similar sentence earlier
this year, after established internationals Sayed Mohamed Adnan,
Alaa and Mohammed Hubail were imprisoned in April, accused of
taking part in anti-government demonstrations.
While they have since been released, charges have not been
dropped and they will not play in the third-round qualifier against
Qatar beginning on Sept. 2.
It is not just the national bodies that are in political
turmoil. Even the AFC itself is without a president after Mohammed
bin Hammam was banned from all soccer activities for life in July
by FIFA’s Ethics Committee after being found guilty of vote buying
during his failed bid to replace FIFA president Sepp Blatter.
The AFC has left the presidency open pending the outcome of bin
Hammam’s appeals – leaving Asia’s peak body without a leader at a
time it is being urged to make reforms to promote the game.
West Asia has struggled at times with incompetence and
interference, and Southeast Asia has had its own issues.
This year, elections to choose the head of the federations in
Thailand and Indonesia were suspended amid political infighting.
The head of the Indonesian FA Nurdin Halid, jailed for corruption
during his leadership, was finally prevented from running for a
In June, Djohar Arifin Husin was elected and two days into the
new regime, and just a week before the start of qualification for
the 2014 World Cup, national team coach Alfred Riedl was fired. The
former Austrian coach was told that his contract was invalid.
”I have since had no contact with the new federation,” said
Riedl, who believes he is a victim of the political rivalries
between Nurdin and his rivals. ”I have still not been paid and I
have sent all the details to FIFA.”
Corruption is a long-standing problem in the region. According
to Steve Darby, an English coach with experience in Malaysia,
Thailand and Singapore, a more professional outlook would help.
”There have been recent arrests in Malaysia but the problem is
deep-rooted,” said Darby. ”The basic first step is to pay on time
and in full, as debt, especially in poorer countries, is a major
contributor to match-fixing.”
Former English Premier League defender Zesh Rehman plays for
Thailand champion Muang Thong United and believes that Southeast
Asian soccer is getting its act together.
”There is always room for improvement,” Rehman told AP. ”But
the level of professionalism at Muang Thong is very good. Our club
is the benchmark for others in terms of fan base, marketing, and
the club in general as a brand. Countries like Japan and Korea are
what Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysia should be aspiring
to emulate, it’s starting to happen.”
South Korea’s not exempt from off-field strife. The K-League,
Asia’s oldest and most successful national league in terms of
continental titles, this week imposed a lifetime ban on 40 soccer
players for their alleged involvement in match-fixing. The ban from
appearing in games and assuming any official soccer-related jobs
follows a similar punishment handed to 10 players in June. Seven
indicted soccer players-turned-gambling brokers have also been
Authorities are drawing up plans for a revised league with much
stricter operating criteria for clubs to meet from 2013.
Despite the problems around Asia, the general direction of the
continent is forward.
James Montague, author of ”When Friday Comes,” a book about
soccer and politics in the Middle East, believes that Syria didn’t
do its homework with Mourad but is optimistic about the future.
”The professionalism of the players in the region is actually
pretty good when you look at what they have to put up with: war,
political interference, ineptitude within federations, corruption
and poverty. When you look at somewhere like Palestine, where in
three years they have built a professional league, started a
women’s league and built their first home stadium, there is proof
that it is going in the right direction.”
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