In the world of sports politics, there’s not much out there that scan surpass the machinations of football’s global governing body, FIFA.

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) — which Australia recently joined — has four seats on the 24-member FIFA executive committee, which is chaired by FIFA president Sepp Blatter and makes key decisions in the biggest and wealthiest sport on earth, including who will host the 2018 and 2022 World Cup finals tournaments.

With federal government kicking in an incredible $45.6 million, Australia in the running to host either event, with a decision due in December 2010. To get up, Australia needs to convince at least 13 members to vote for us.

But now the west Asian seat on the FIFA executive committee — held by Qatari AFC president Mohamed bin Hammam, a strong supporter of Australia’s move to Asia from Oceania — is up for election and for the first time in 13 years, there is a challenger.

Shaikh Salman bin Ibrahim al-Khalifa, a member of Bahrain’s royal family and chief of the tiny nation’s football association, wants the FIFA seat and is up against bin Hammam in a vote to take place on May 8, during the 23rd AFC Congress in Kuala Lumpur.

So far the increasingly bitter campaign has featured an unprecedented public slanging match carried out through legitimate media, as well as Bahrain’s state-run, English-language mouthpiece.

Even Blatter has issued a statement calling for discipline and restraint after complaints levelled against both candidates.

But the contest ramped up another notch over the weekend, when the Olympic Council Of Asia (OCA) vigorously denied bin Hammam’s claim that it is offering cash grants to Asian football associations in exchange for votes for his opponent.

Bin Hammam made the vote-buying claim three weeks ago in an interview with SBS Television’s veteran football analyst, Les Murray, who last week referred it to the relatively new and largely untested FIFA Ethics Committee — on which he is the sole Australian member — for investigation.

The OCA has not only vigorously denied the claims, but threatened legal action with the backing of 15 countries it claims have been wrongly implicated.

It says that on April 16, the FIFA Ethics Committee asked it to clarify the rumours and it promptly responded the same day “denying the baseless accusations” and requesting FIFA name the source, but the following day FIFA advised it was not a position to provide that information.

The OCA says it later ascertained the source was comments made in the SBS interview by bin Hammam “without any proof, which is a part of his unwise campaign and has a created a division in Football in the Asian Continent” and expects accusations and rumours from him to continue until polling day.

“Clearly, the OCA cannot leave such accusations unanswered and is now preparing to undertake legal action against these so called ‘sources’ along with at least 15 countries who have also been wrongly implicated,” the statement says.

Murray stresses the allegation has not been made by himself or SBS, but by the AFC President.

“As a member of the ethics committee, in all conscience I couldn’t ignore them and had to report them for possible investigation,” Murray says in an article posted on the public television network’s website.

In his report to FIFA Ethics Committee Acting Chairman Justice Petrus Damaseb, who has since ordered an inquiry, Murray wrote: “I have consulted on this matter with two other AFC members of the Ethics Committee, Justice Robert Torres (Guam) and Dali Tahir (Indonesia). Both agree that the matter should be filed with the Ethics Committee.”

The Shaikh is understood to have the strong backing of South Korea’s football big wigs, former AFC secretary general Peter Velappan, while elements within the OCA are suspected to be supporting his candidacy.

Interestingly, IOC member and OCA president Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah has been an outspoken opponent of Australia’s admission to the AFC and more generally, Australian athletes in Asian competitions.

SBS says it sought comment from Shaikh Salman over the vote-buying claims but received no specific response, with a statement he has issued only reaffirming his commitment to Blatter’s demands.

Bin Hammam believes he has the numbers to maintain his place on FIFA’s executive committee based on his work to date.

Japan’s Junji Ogura, Thailand’s Worawi Makudi and Korean Dr Mong-Joon Chung are the other Asian representatives on FIFA’s most influential decision-making body, but only bin Hammam’s seat is up for election.

It’s no surprise the most vitriolic exchanges have been between bin Hammam and Chung. The latter will lose his vice presidency on FIFA’s top table if bin Hammam succeeds in pushing through reforms automatically assigning FIFA vice president to the AFC president of the day.

Peter Fray

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