Asian Football Confederation (AFC) President Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa’s candidacy for the presidency of world football body FIFA is likely to serve as a litmus test for newly introduced integrity checks on the group’s executives.
Sheikh Salman was a former football player and consistently refused, like other members of his ruling family, to respond to allegations. Human rights groups accused that he was associated with the detention and abuse of scores of sports executives and athletes, including national football team players, and alleged to have participated in a 2011 popular uprising that was brutally squashed.
Salman also played a key role in squashing a 2012 independent audit of AFC finances that raised serious questions about possible bribery, non-transparency, tax evasion, and sanctions busting in the awarding to Singapore-based World Sport Group (WSG) of a $1bn master rights agreement.
Pricewaterhouse Cooper (PwC) constituted the basis for FIFA’s banning of former AFC president and FIFA executive committee member Mohammed Bin Hammam for life. PwC’s audit counselled AFC to seek legal advice on potential civil and criminal charges and review its contract with Singapore-based World Sport Group.
AFC officials deny that Sheikh Salman or the group buried the audit. In a new twist, the officials recently disclosed that in addition to the audit, PwC also delivered a report on a proposed restructuring of the AFC. The officials said those recommendations had largely been implemented.
In reflection of the group’s lack of transparency and Sheikh Salman’s management style, the disclosure was the first time in three years since the AFC audit was referred to a second PwC report. The report was never made public nor was it clear what PwC recommendations were implemented. Disclosure of the existence of the report did not explain why the recommendations of the audit have been ignored.
Salman’s secretive management style that bodes ill for reform of FIFA should he win the world football body’s 26 February presidential election is further evident in current AFC negotiations with potential marketing partners. AFC denied reports that the group was negotiating an extension of its controversial WSG contract. The officials said AFC was talking to various companies and had yet to take a decision.
The PwC audit criticised AFC for failing to put the contract to tender, a suggestion Salman appears to be studiously ignoring. The audit further raised questions about the evaluation of the contract and unexplained payments of $14m to Bin Hammam through an AFC account by a WSG shareholder in advance of signing the original contract.
The only known time that AFC took action with regard to the audit, besides honouring FIFA’s banning of Bin Hammam, was early this year when it effectively fired its general secretary, Dato’ Alex Soosay, for seeking to destroy documents relevant to the audit.
Even then, AFC portrayed Soosay’s dismissal as a voluntary resignation. Following his departure, with disclosure by this blog and The Malay Mail of a tape, financial director Bryan Kuan Wee Hoong testified that Soosay asked him to destroy documents. Since the disclosure of the tape, Kuan left AFC.
The fact that it took media pressure for Salman and AFC to act three years after delivery of the audit says much about the Bahraini’s management style.
The PwC audit suggested that Soosay authorised many of the payments on which it cast legal doubt. “Our transaction review revealed that items sampled were, in most cases, authorised by the General Secretary or Deputy General Secretary and the Director of Finance,” the PwC report said. “As signatories these parties hold accountability for the authorisation of these transactions. We also note the Internal Audit and Finance Committees were aware of this practice”.
AFC and Salman’s allegations of his involvement in the arrest and torture of sports officials and athletes in 2011, as well as in his management of the Asian sports group and lack of transparency, contrasts starkly with efforts to clean up football governance. It led to the arrest in Switzerland of seven football officials and the suspension of FIFA President Sepp Blatter and UEFA President Michel Platini, at the request of the US Justice Department.
The lack of transparency is also notable given suggestions that AFC may be on the investigation radar because of Bin Hammam, who is believed to have been named as an unidentified co-conspirator in US indictments and the AFC’s contract with WSG.
WSG has been linked to Traffic, a sports marketing company among those indicted in the US. In 2005, it acquired the international broadcasting rights of the Gold Cup and CONCACAF Champions League operated by the football confederation for North, Central America, and the Caribbean together with Traffic.
Traffic´s owner, Brazilian businessman Jose Hawilla, is cooperating with the FBI in its FIFA investigation, one of Hawilla lawyers told The Wall Street Journal. Under the agreement, Hawilla admitted to crimes including money laundering, fraud, extortion, and agreeing to return $151m in funds.
Salman’s refusal to denounce the alleged abuses of human rights or to discuss the allegations against him are all the starker given the fact that an independent fact-finding commission made up of international rights lawyers, that was endorsed by the Bahraini government, concluded in November 2011 that those detained during the uprising suffered systematic abuse. Among them were two of Bahrain’s top football players.
The report created a basis on which Salman could have been more forthcoming about what happened in 2011 and his alleged role in the events. Instead, he said that there was no reason to apologise to the players because it was an issue for politicians, not his football federation.
According to information submitted to British prosecutors, Salman chaired a committee established in 2011 by a decree by a relative, Prince Nasser bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, head of Bahrain’s Supreme Council for Youth and Sport, as well as its Olympic Committee, and the fourth son of King Hamad. He ordered that measures be taken against those guilty of insulting Bahrain and its leadership.
Prince Nasser formed the committee after an earlier royal decree had declared a state of emergency. The royal decree allowed the Bahrain military to crack down on the protests and establish military courts, according to the information provided to the prosecutor.
Critics charge that since the squashing of the 2011 popular revolt, sports have largely served as attempts to bolster Bahrain’s tarnished image. “There are no sports since the uprising. Matches serve as PR to show that Bahrain is back to normal,” said Faisal Hayyat, a Bahraini sports journalist and activist. This idea was also reflected in Salman’s decision to hold AFC’s annual congress earlier this year in Bahrain rather than at the group’s headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
FIFA has yet to detail what integrity checks of its executives and presidential candidates will entail. Evaluation of Salman’s presidential candidacy is likely to put the integrity of those checks to the test.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.