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Bahrain Soccer Chief Faces Tough Questions in AFC Election

04/23/2013 11:33 am ET | Updated Jun 23, 2013

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC), struggling to restore credibility after two scandal-riddled years involving allegations of financial mismanagement and corruption, has had a foretaste of questions and issues that are likely to be raised if Bahrain Football Association head Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa , widely viewed as a frontrunner, wins the group's May 2 presidential election.

Sheikh Salman is one of four candidates running to replace Mohammed Bin Hammam, the disgraced and banned former president of the governing Asian soccer. Sheikh Salman lost to Mr. Bin Hammam four years ago in a bitter election campaign and is the only current candidate who is not associated with the Qatari national.

Mr. Bin Hammam was last December banned for life from involvement in soccer by world football body FIFA on charges of multiple conflicts of interest that violated the group's code of ethics. An earlier internal AFC audit conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) had concluded that he had used an AFC sundry account as his personal account.

It also raised questions about his further financial and commercial management of the group, including the negotiation and terms of a $1billion master rights agreement (MRA) with Singapore-based World Sport Group (WSG). WSG has taken legal action against this reporter in a bid to squash reporting and silence sources.

The AFC and Sheikh Salman, who is backed by the powerful Olympic Council of Asia headed by Kuwaiti Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al-Sabah, got an inkling of issues involved in the Bahraini's candidacy when Manchester United soccer legend Dennis Law this month visited the Gulf island state.

A human rights group, Human Rights First, charged this week that a Bahraini medical doctor, Dr Fatima Haji, had been arrested, beaten and electrocuted two years ago during a brutally squashed popular uprising for asking Manchester United to hold a minute's silence for 15-year-old Ahmad Shams, who was shot and killed during the uprising wearing a Manchester United shirt.

Mr. Law and Manchester United have so far avoided addressing the issue. The club's website quoted Mr. Law as saying: "I have been overwhelmed by the number of United fans who have greeted me here today. It is my first time in Bahrain and the welcome I have received has been fantastic."

Nevertheless, the squashing of the revolt that involved the arrest and/or dismissal of some 150 Bahraini athletes and sports officials, including three national team soccer players, continues to haunt the country as well as Sheikh Salman, a member of Bahrain's royal family.

Companies sponsoring Formula One motor racing have shown significantly less willingness to fund this week's Bahrain Grand Prix after last year's race failed to move criticism of the country's human rights record and continued protests out of the limelight. This week's race is likely to again focus attention on Bahrain's domestic tensions.

Thomson Reuters and Diageo's Johnnie Walker whiskey brand, which is culturally sensitive in a Muslim nation, opted out of this year's Bahrain Grand Prix. Vodafone decided to use the logos of its Middle East partner Zain rather than its own. Oil company Shell said its involvement in Bahrain would be limited to sending three technicians to offer support on fuel and lubricants while Swiss bank UBS would not host any of its clients at the Bahrain race.

Hesitancy towards Bahrain is reinforced by the fact that two years after the squashing of the revolt with the help of a Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation (GCC) force protests continue unabated. Few expect talks between the government and the opposition to resolve the crisis with hardliners within the royal family on the ascendancy and despite indications that Saudi Arabia is concerned that the situation on the island, a mere 45 minute drive from its predominantly Shiite, oil-rich Eastern Province, could again get out of hand.

Sheikh Salman is likely to be questioned at a news conference in Dubai this week about his failure to stand up for the soccer players who were arrested, denounced as traitors, allegedly tortured and charged. The charges were ultimately dropped under pressure from FIFA. "Sheikh Salman has taken a hard-liner on football players accused of protest activity during the uprising, but most likely he was simply the executor of this crackdown," said Justin Gengler, a Doha-based Bahrain analyst.

With his competitor's -- Yousuf al Serkal of the United Arab Emirates, Worawi Makdudi of Thailand and Hafez Al Medlej of Saudi Arabia -- promising reform of the AFC, Sheikh Salman will have to come up at his meeting with journalists with a convincing program that holds out the promise of greater transparency and accountability of the troubled Asian body.

Sheikh Salman drafted in February a seven-point program entitled United for Change that pledged to fight match-fixing, doping and illegal betting; ensure full financial transparency by introducing international accounting standards and externally audited yearly reports; and guarantee equality in the distribution of AFC commercial revenues.

Mr. Serkal has since then unveiled a platform that promises to publish "all allowances and benefits given to me by the confederation, and expenditure incurred by my office," establish a whistle-blower hotline encourage the exposure of wrongdoing, make all the AFC's commercial contracts available to its members for scrutiny, and hire auditors to look at current agreements.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, director of the University of Würzburg's Institute of Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog