Last month's signing of a memorandum of understanding between the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and its European counterpart, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), potentially boosts an uphill battle by reformers to strengthen governance in the AFC, a deeply divided and troubled organization.
The agreement also bolsters efforts to weaken the influence within the Asian soccer body of its president, Mohammed Bin Hammam, a 63-year-old Qatari national who has been suspended for more than a year pending investigation of alleged bribery and corruption in the worst scandal in the history of world soccer. Mr. Bin Hammam has repeatedly denied the charges.
World soccer governing body FIFA, which also suspended Mr. Bin Hammam as a member of its executive committee, announced last week that its independent investigator, former New York prosecutor Michael J. Garcia, had completed his inquiry into the charges.
Mr. Garcia was investigating allegations that Mr. Bin Hammam had bribed Caribbean soccer officials to enlist their support for his failed bid to challenge FIFA president Sepp Blatter in last year' presidential election as well as the Qatari's financial management of the AFC.
FIFA said that Mr. Garcia's "final report, together with the investigation files, would be submitted to the adjudicatory chamber of the FIFA Ethics Committee for examination. On the same day, all of the documents were sent by Garcia to the chairman of the adjudicatory chamber, Hans-Joachim Eckert," FIFA said. The soccer body said Mr. Eckert had "deemed that the final report was complete and decided to proceed with adjudicatory proceedings in this case."
The AFC's memorandum of understanding with UEFA is part of a reformist effort to put an end to what at best can be described as mismanagement within the Asian group that has been progressing on the Leninist principle of two steps forward, one step backwards.
In a statement, the AFC noted that UEFA, the regional association widely viewed as the gold standard in good governance in world soccer, would assist the Asian body in "marketing, legal and social responsibility matters apart from promotion of good governance principles in the game," the issues it is struggling most with.
Opponents of Mr. Bin Hammam say the suspended soccer boss's influence is greatest in those parts of the AFC that deal with marketing, finance and legal issues. The AFC last month effectively fired its marketing director Satoshi Saito, who was seconded for two years to the group by the Japanese Football Association (JFA), one of Mr. Bin Hammam's staunchest critics. Mr. Saito, the sources said, had long been barred from meetings with the Asian group's influential marketing contractor, the Singapore-based World Sports Group (WSG) on the grounds that "the company holds all plenipotentiary rights to AFC's marketing rights."
The AFC statement quoted Acting President Zhang Jilong as saying the agreement with UEFA constituted a milestone in the history of Asian football. "It is a historical day for Asian football as we enter into the partnership with UEFA. They have set the standards in world football and we are happy to share their knowledge to develop the Asian game."
Sources said Mr. Garcia's investigation report was believed to include a damning internal audit of Mr. Bin Hammam's financial management of the AFC that asserted that he had used an AFC sundry account as his personal account. The report also raised serious questions about the propriety of WSG's $1 billion master rights agreement (MRA) negotiated by Mr. Bin Hammam.
WSG has taken legal steps against this reporter in a bid to force him to disclose sources for his reporting, squash media reporting and intimidate sources.
The company has so far refrained from public comment on the audit that also raised questions about $14 million in payments to Mr. Bin Hammam by one of its shareholders in the run-up to the signing of the agreement.
However, in an August 28 letter to this reporter that first threatened legal action, WSG legal counsel Stephanie McManus said that "PWC are incorrect and misconceived in suggesting that the MRA was undervalued. They have neither considered the terms of the contract correctly, the market, nor the circumstances in which it was negotiated." Ms. McManus did not comment on questions raised by the audit about the payments as well as the negotiating procedure and terms of the contract.
The sources said a deal forged in late November during an AFC executive committee meeting in Kuala Lumpur between Mr. Bin Hammam's supporters and several AFC member association led by Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) president Makhdoom Syed Faisal Saleh Hayat and opposed by reformists involved the holding of new presidential and executive committee elections in exchange for burying the report at least temporarily.
The sources said the deal effectively had little substance given that the AFC had surrendered control of the investigation of Mr. Bin Hammam as well as his relationship to WSG to Mr. Garcia prior to the executive committee meeting. They said cooperation with UEFA strengthened efforts to clean-up and reform the AFC and would ultimately have to include an inquiry into WSG's contractual relationship with the Asian body.
The audit conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) on behalf of the AFC urged the soccer body to seek legal advice related to Mr. Bin Hammam's financial management of the group as well as to the possibility of renegotiating or cancelling the WSG contract.
The sources said an inquiry into the contract was unlikely before the AFC's April elections but that the question was not if but when it would occur.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog where this story first appeared.