Monday, February 15, 2010

St Valentine’s Day love-in

It hardly seems as if it was a year ago that Asian Football Confederation president Mohamed bin Hammam was fighting desperately to retain his seat on the FIFA Executive Committee.

The ballot – which the AFC president won by just two votes – was held in May, but the serious vitriol from the anti-Hammam camp started to appear around 12 months ago, building into a nasty cacophony of bitter accusations.

Hammam, to his credit, not only won the election but maintained a degree of dignity despite facing allegations that he misused the confederation’s funds and that he was unfit to lead an organisation of the stature of the AFC.

One of the greatest slurs, though, came from Dr Chung Mong-joon, the powerful president of the Korean Football Association (as he was at the time).

Just days before the vote in Kuala Lumpur, he proclaimed his fellow FIFA Exco member was insane and that he should be “taken to the hospital” rather than returning to his position in Zurich.

It was an astonishing claim and underlined how bitter the battle was to become in its final days. While Hammam’s rule has been far from perfect, Chung’s attack was unnecessarily personal.

Perhaps one of the most astonishing aspects of the campaign was that such comments were allowed to go unchallenged as Hammam continued to maintain his silence until election day, when he won.

In some respects, his victory was against the odds as Hammam had amassed against him the might of east Asia, a substantial number of west Asian nations as well as the Olympic Council of Asia and – perhaps most significantly of all – FIFA president Sepp Blatter, who was lobbying behind the scenes.

Blatter, being the wily old politician that he is, smelt blood in the water and was circling Hammam, ready to strike an early blow against a potential opponent in the 2011 battle for the FIFA presidency.

His plan, however, may well have backfired because Hammam’s narrow win has served to strengthen his position within Asia.

The differences that surfaced so acrimoniously last year have been more than patched up and there is now a concerted effort being made by Hammam and Chung to work together against Blatter.

That was evident for all to see at the final round of matches at the East Asian Championship in Tokyo on Sunday because, sat in the VIP box at Tokyo’s National Stadium, was Hammam with Chung, Thailand’s Worawi Makudi and various Japan Football Association and East Asian Football Federation luminaries.

Bridges have been mended, Hammam and Chung are now allies and the sights are being trained on Blatter.

Hammam’s declaration to run for FIFA president won’t come for some time yet – most likely after the World Cup is completed – but when it is made, the gloves will be off.

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