Head of Asian soccer running unopposed for new term

FILE - In this Feb. 26, 2016, file photo, the FIFA presidential candidate Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa of Bahrain smiles as the votes are counted during the extraordinary FIFA congress in Zurich, Switzerland. The Asian Football Confederation holds its presidential election on Saturday, March 6, 2019, with incumbent Sheikh Salman standing unopposed for a new term. (AP Photo/Michael Probst, File)

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — The Asian Football Confederation holds its presidential election on Saturday with incumbent Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa of Bahrain standing unopposed for a new term.

With soccer politics in the region fractured, it was expected that the election in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, would be fiercely-contested when Mohammed Khalfan Al Romaithi of the United Arab Emirates and Saoud Al Mohannadi of Qatar decided to run.

But both withdrew last month, leaving Sheikh Salman unopposed.

Sheikh Salman was elected AFC president in 2013. He took over from acting president Zhang Jilong of China after Mohammed bin Hammam of Qatar was banned for life for corruption by world governing body FIFA. He was elected to his first four-year term in 2015.

Sheikh Salman cemented this position by signing a new commercial rights deal in 2018, expanding tournaments and increasing the money going back to member federations.

"The other candidates realized that they did not stand a chance against Salman," James Dorsey, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, told the Associated Press. He is the author of "The Turbulent World Of Middle East Soccer."

"There was no real reason for ambitious Gulf powers like Saudi Arabia to oppose Salman," he said.

Dorsey said in the past six years there has been little attempt to introduce transparency or reform into Asian soccer politics, a policy that has not harmed the chances of Sheikh Salman. He was defeated in the 2016 FIFA presidential election by Gianni Infantino.

Infantino has also been faulted for not doing enough to clean up the sport following the massive FIFA corruption scandal in 2015.

"Salman has done nothing to reduce or put in place mechanisms that would govern the inextricable relationship between sports and politics," Dorsey said. "He in many ways embodies that relationship as a member of a Gulf ruling family that keeps a tight political lid on sports."

Divisions in Asian soccer remain. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have all boycotted Qatar since June 2017, cutting off diplomatic relations with the country. Such tensions cast a shadow over the Asian Cup that was held in January in the UAE and won by Qatar.

Despite such issues even Qatar has publicly backed Salman. Seemingly out of the equation are Japan and South Korea — the traditional soccer powers in the region — and China.

The Qatar Football Association said in a statement on March 28 that "we are fully confident he (Sheikh Salman) will guide Asia as one unit in all forthcoming matters."

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