Saturday, October 19, 2019

Backed by powerful sheikh, Bangladeshi Kiron’s rise in Asian football hierarchy in question

  • >> Tariq Panja, The New York Times
    Published: 2019-04-18 20:58:47 BdST

After more than a decade of involvement in women’s football, Mariyam Mohamed felt she had a shot at making a convincing case to voters picking Asia’s female representative on FIFA’s governing council. She did not realise a powerful Arab sheikh would play a significant role in deciding exactly who gets a seat at football’s top table.

The Asian Football Confederation last week decided to re-elect Bangladesh’s Mahfuza Akhter Kiron, who was practically unknown when she beat more experienced challengers in 2017, and has rarely spoken during her tenure in the $250,000 a year post.

Kiron, though, had the backing of Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah of Kuwait, who steered voters toward his desired outcome, according to a complaint Mohamed filed with AFC’s election oversight panel and numerous officials involved with the process. The complaint, which was reviewed by The New York Times, was also sent to FIFA.

Mahfuza Akhter Kiron

Mahfuza Akhter Kiron

The sheikh, who runs the Olympic Council of Asia, an umbrella group for Olympic committees created by his late father, was identified as a co-conspirator in a Department of Justice football corruption case in 2017. He subsequently resigned from FIFA’s ruling council and pledged to withdraw from soccer while the case was being litigated.

His continuing involvement shows how the most influential figures at the highest levels of international sport often find ways to maintain their grip on the levers of power even when they are not supposed to.

At the AFC’s elections, the sheikh’s luxury suite at Kuala Lumpur’s Hyatt Hotel, close to the venue where voters had gathered, was where decisions were taken, according to officials that met with him, including Mohamed, a football official from the Maldives, who met with him in his suite.

In the complaint and in an interview with The New York Times, Mohamed provided a rare glimpse of how power functions at the highest levels of football, and how little has changed even in the aftermath of a major scandal in 2015.

Ahmad, she said, told her to drop out of the election because he had already decided to back Kiron. If she did as she was told, he would be able to place Mohamed in another position, either at FIFA or within Asian soccer. If she didn’t, her career was effectively over, and her country would also suffer, he suggested.

“He said this is how it works in politics, it’s not football,” Mohamed recalled of the meeting in a telephone interview. “He said: ‘It’s not based on experience, it’s the relationships we have with each other.’ And that was the end.”

Mohamed tried to convince him to change his mind, but he would not.

“I said, ‘Please don’t do this,’” she said. “I didn’t want to withdraw. I just wanted to tell him not to use his powers to influence this.”

A spokesman for Ahmad at the Olympic Council of Asia did not respond to a request for comment.

The elections determined which officials would represent Asia at FIFA and on the confederation’s ruling council. The voting was also supposed to confirm Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa for another term as president, but his opponents withdrew before the poll.

Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) President Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah speaks at a news conference at the Main Media Centre of the 17th Asian Games in Incheon September 21, 2014. Reuters

Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) President Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah speaks at a news conference at the Main Media Centre of the 17th Asian Games in Incheon September 21, 2014. Reuters

The night before the elections on April 6, several members present said they received a list of 16 candidates promoted by Ahmad. All of them won seats in the elections.

The AFC said in a statement that the elections are supervised by an independent body and according to guidelines to “ensure fair, honest and credible elections.”

In April 2017, Ahmad was described as “co-conspirator 2” in the guilty plea of a former associate in the United States, who claimed he had received about $1 million, to influence soccer elections at the AFC. Following the revelations, Ahmad, who denies any accusations of wrongdoing, quit football, but retained powerful positions on the International Olympic Committee. Ahmad had previously lobbied for Thomas Bach to secure the International Olympic Committee presidency in 2013.

In November last year, he was forced to temporarily step away from his IOC positions after being implicated in a new scandal. Swiss authorities indicted him on forgery charges. He denies those accusations, too, describing them as “politically motivated.”

He did not, however, step down from the Olympic Council of Asia, which wields considerable influence throughout the region because it distributes money from the IOC for sports programs in Asia.

Ahmad’s support also boosted Qatar, the biggest winners at the Asian football elections. A candidate from the tiny emirate that is preparing to stage the 2022 World Cup secured both the vice presidency of the AFC and a position on the FIFA Council. Those victories came at the expense of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, two nations that had been lobbying against Qatar amid a bitter political dispute.

Qatar’s football federation president, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa bin Ahmed Al Thani, a member of its ruling family, was present at Mohamed’s meeting with Ahmad, said Mohamed. Vahid Kardany, head of international relations at the AFC, was also there. Kardany had worked directly for Ahmad earlier in his career. Kardany did not respond to a request for comment; neither did officials in Qatar.

Two years ago, Australia’s Moya Dodd lost her seat as Asia’s female representative to Kiron, then a completely unknown candidate from Bangladesh, a football backwater where women’s football was almost nonexistent.

Members of the 37-member council said Kiron has yet to speak at a meeting.

Kiron hasn’t spoken because “things are OK,” Bangladesh football president Kazi Salahuddin said by phone. “Things are going so well she said she doesn’t need to speak. There’s no point repeating the same things as everyone else.”

He said the support from the Olympic Council of Asia “probably helped” her re-election efforts.

© 2019 New York Times News Service