IOC’s transparency call defies football

IOC’s transparency call defies football

James M. Dorsey
IOC’s transparency call defies football

OCA president Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah (C) speaks to the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach (R). AFP Photo

Taken at face value, a rare acknowledgment by International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach that sports and politics are inextricably intertwined should be a first step toward radical reform that offers a proper structure to govern the relationship. That is nowhere truer than in Middle Eastern, North African and Asian football where political domination of the game is dominant despite insistence by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) and world football governing body FIFA that sports and politics are separate.

Speaking at the opening of the Asian Games in Incheon, Bach said sports should acknowledge its ties to politics as well as big business but at the same time ensure that it maintains its neutrality.

“In the past, some have said that sport has nothing to do with politics, or they have said that sport has nothing to do with money or business. And this is just an attitude which is wrong and which we cannot afford anymore. We are living in the middle of society and that means that we have to partner up with the politicians who run this world,” Bach said. Bach targeted the AFC’s and FIFA’s denial of the marriage between sports and politics that most officials and analysts in the football world freely acknowledge by noting that allowing countries to set their own rules in football would mean that “international sport is over.”

Bach’s vision for the Olympic Games is embedded in his agenda for the coming six years which involves making the bidding process more flexible, lowering the cost of hosting tournaments and creating a digital channel to promote Olympic sports and values such as fair play. Ensuring that the incestuous relationship between sports and politics in Middle Eastern, North African and Asian football is transparent and independent will take a lot more than focusing on the organization of tournaments and the projection of values. Middle Eastern and North African autocrats use football for a host of self-serving political purposes, including pacifying populations; ensuring that stadia do not emerge as venues of protest; and seeking to improve their tarnished images at home and abroad.

The election last year of Bahraini Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim al-Khalifa to complete the term of disgraced AFC president Mohammed Bin Hammam, the Qatari national at the center of the Qatar controversy and the FIFA scandals, also says much about the intimate relationship between politics and football governance in the Middle East and Asia. Three national football players in Sheikh Salman’s home country were three years ago denounced as traitors, detained and tortured for participating in anti-government demonstrations three years ago. The players have been released but Bahrain has since arrested two whole teams.

Sheikh Salman, a member of Bahrain’s repressive ruling family and head of the Bahrain Football Association, has refused to comment on the plight of his players insisting that sports and politics are separate. British prosecutors have been considering a petition by a Bahraini national for the arrest of a relative of Sheikh Salman, Prince Nasser bin Hamad al-Khalifa, on suspicion of involvement in the abuse of political prisoners.

Sheikh Salman persuaded the AFC Congress in June in Brazil to tighten his political control of Asian and Middle Eastern football governance by agreeing to combine the post of AFC president and FIFA vice president rather than maintain the vice presidency as an elected position. The move was also designed to sideline the current FIFA vice president, Jordanian Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, the one member of a ruling family who has emerged as the foremost reformer in football governance, campaigning for greater transparency, accountability, focus on grassroots and women’s rights.

In response, Prince Ali has said he would run for election to the FIFA executive committee when his current term as vice president ends in 2015. “The composition of Asia has changed and if we want to have all the power in Asia under one person, time will tell if that is a good decision or not,” he said. “I don’t give a damn about protocol. I care about football.”