In Soccer’s Biggest Elections, Accusations Are Common but Challengers Are Not

The American case largely avoided implicating officials in Asia, but by then regional soccer leaders had already faced a reckoning after a series of internal investigations into the conduct of Sheikh Salman’s predecessor, Bin Hammam, and his leadership team. Those reports, including one by the former F.B.I. chief Louis Freeh, exposed a series of unexplained payments made to soccer officials throughout Asia and Africa.

The reports, three in total, which have been reviewed by The New York Times, exposed a series of payments made on behalf of Bin Hammam by the A.F.C.’s longtime media partner, World Sports Group, and specifically its regional head, the Lebanese businessman Pierre Kakhia. The payments included legal fees for an official from Tahiti who was facing an ethics ban, and money to a consulting firm hired to promote Bin Hammam’s bid for the FIFA presidency.

Despite his links to Bin Hammam, Kakhia remains a trusted consultant to the A.F.C., currently responsible for handling millions of dollars worth of sponsorship contracts, even though he last worked for W.S.G.’s parent company in 2016.

The A.F.C. declined to say why it had retained the services of Kakhia.

As well as Sheikh Salman’s re-election, delegates at the meeting in Kuala Lumpur will pick candidates for coveted places on global soccer’s ruling body, the FIFA Council. That contest, featuring eight candidates vying for six places, has proved to be contentious.

South Korean officials have complained to the A.F.C. over perceived double standards in ethics rules after their country was barred from inviting soccer officials to Seoul to attend an exhibition game last month, a prohibition that was not extended to Qatar, which wrote to officials inviting them on an all-expenses paid trip to attend two matches there. Both South Korea and Qatar have candidates in the election, as does the Philippines, whose candidate, the South Koreans contend, has been using a private jet owned by a Qatari official to travel across the region during his campaign.

“We urgently request you to review this matter in relation to any violation against the relevant regulations in force,” the Korean soccer federation president, Chong Mong-gyu, wrote in a letter to the A.F.C. The A.F.C., which confirmed it had received the South Koreans’ complaint, declined to say why it had not issued the same warning to Qatar.

Sheikh Salman’s challengers dropped out of the presidential race after a series of decisions by the A.F.C., including the surprising move to break an exclusive television contract with the A.F.C.’s broadcast partner, the Qatari broadcaster BeIN Sports, in order to allow games to be broadcast in Saudi Arabia, where games have been broadcast illegally for almost two years. BeIN said it planned to sue the A.F.C. over the decision.

Until that decision, Saudi Arabia had been supporting an Emirati candidate, Mohammad Khalfan al-Rumaithi. Rumaithi withdrew his candidacy shortly after the television agreement was struck. The third candidate, Saoud al-Mohannadi of Qatar, soon followed suit.


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