Questions to AFC President Bin Hammam


Portrayed as “high-handed”, “selfish” and “xenophobic” by Malaysian Manchester United fans for his convincing arguments that caused the club to cancel its Asian Cup-clashing commercial game in Kuala Lumpur, Asian Football Confederation two-term President Mohamed Bin Hammam is not a man of towering physique. Rather it is his quiet demeanour, steely concentration and occasional flashes of passion that illustrate the determination so often evident in his public statements.

To him, for instance, Man United’s scheduled game was not just a negative impact on the AFC’s tournament but also "immoral, unethical, and disrespectful" to Asian football, and “a kind of colonialism.” Mind you, two year’s earlier he’d already admonished Real Madrid for a China tour described by media as a “gold-digging” exercise. “European clubs have to remember that our national associations, players and fans look to them not as money-minded opportunists but as leaders and role-models in the game,” he warned.

But Bin Hammam is equally as blunt with issues within the Asian family where “face” is often given a reverence far above competency. While praising India’s prospects on a recent tour he pointed out antiquated club houses. "With the kind of facilities they have, India should not even dream of being in the World Cup for another 100 years," he quipped.

And on the management and marketing issues affecting next month’s Asian Cup: "With four countries this is a problem. It involves a lot of marketing and a lot of energy. You get something from one government, but not another. Most of them are amateurs hardly committed to their associations, maybe just an hour a day. We have to have commitment. If one country fulfils its obligation and another one doesn’t, this is no good to us."

The recently re-elected Asian leader (and continuing Chairman of the world football body, FIFA’s powerful development-focussed GOAL Program) shared coffee with Asian Football Business Review at AFC House in Kuala Lumpur and responded to our questions on three aspects of his football modernisation drive in Asia..

How serious are you about building Professional Leagues?

Bin Hammam’s planning for football in Asia commenced during his six years in the AFC Executive Committee, with time as Chairman of its Finance Committee and Vice-Chairman of its Development Fund, before standing for election as President and winning in August 2002. “I saw that there was scope for me to make changes,” he said, explaining why he stood for the top post.

One month later he introduced his Vision Asia concept which was inaugurated as the AFC’s long-term football development program at a congress in his home town, Doha, Qatar, in January 2003. In the program, Hammam identified 11 disciplines to be address by Asian football stakeholders wanting to catch up with their European counterparts: national associations, marketing, grassroots, coach education, referees, sports medicine; men's competitions, women's competitions, futsal; media, and fans.

“We learnt from the experiences of Europe and FIFA and then detailed what we were to do and how to do it, the next steps, in advance,” he said. This has resulted in fifteen current and ongoing projects in six countries, including China, India, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Iran and Oman. These are focussed on establishing new metropolitan and provincial-level clubs and leagues from the ground-up.

Ironically, in 2005 Bin Hammam was approached at a UEFA congress by the European confederation’s then Chief Executive, Lars-Christer Olsson. “He told me he wanted to introduce a plan of action for Europe and I said I was willing to help,” he recalled. “”Thank you,’ said Olsson, ‘can we call it Vision Europe?” I said, “why not!”

The drive for professional leagues, announced in 2005 for 2009, is part of the Vision Asia, step-by-step strategy.

“We are not pushing away the amateur side of the game in this program, he said. “Ninety-nine percent is played and enjoyed at the amateur level and only one percent is played at the top. What we must do is separate the amateur from the professional so that the elite can grow and be competitive. We know what happened in European football and what is successful but we have a culture gap in Asia.

“For instance, in our surveys of national associations we found two vocabularies. There would be talk of teams and not clubs and of tournaments and not leagues. Some would talk of having memberships in the thousands. Changing the culture means getting the professional terminology correct.. It means understanding professionalism and recognising the importance of commercialism. We have to change the mentality and accept that professional football has to be organised like a business. Revenue is necessary; it is our top priority," he reiterated.

The drive to professionalism is not expected to be accepted uniformly throughout the vast Asian confederation. Few nations currently have the level of professionalism that meets the AFC’s criteria. The “carrot” for improvement is participating in the ever-more popular Asian Champions League. In 2009, only clubs from countries with professional leagues will be able to participate in the ACL – even if that means they are drawn from five or six countries. Clubs from leagues that don’t qualify will be deemed amateur and streamed in the AFC’s two lower club competitions, the AFC Cup and the President’s Cup.

“The timetable is fixed,” the President confirmed.

How serious are you about building Women’s Football?

“We are definitely trying to enhance women’s football. I told the AFC Executive Committee, if we believe in women’s football then we must do everything to make it a success. If it’s just a luxury thing then we shouldn’t do it. So we are committed 100% to supporting development in the women's game in administration, coaching, players and grassroots,” Bin Hammam said..

“Women have a right to be involved in football. It is not a gift. They deserve it. Resources are still negligible, almost zero and funds are a major restriction. However we have made it possible for the AFC to finance it and to improve the standards. We’ve also set-up the criteria for all our member associations and everyone has to meet that criteria. .They have to build committees and clubs otherwise they’ll be left behind. Now Asia is leading the world in women’s youth football.,” he said.

He gave as examples North Korea and China coming first and second in last year's FIFA U-20 Women’s World Championship and China's Ma Xiaoxu named player of the tournament. He said there were now more senior and junior women's competitions in the region, “even in nations that used to disallow women's football previously." The AFC is raising its number of women executive committee members to at least four and, this year, there will be the first separate AFC awards night to further enhance women’s football.

“When women share the same environment as men at all levels, I can say that success for women’s football is achievable. And for the doubters, particularly when I launched the idea of allocating seats for women on the Executive Committee, it is being proven that when women are in the structure and with more clubs and leagues, there is better performance.

“And now, in women’s football, Asia is being discovered to be more liberal than Europe,” the President quipped.

How serious are you about restricting foreign teams visiting the region during the Asian Cup tournament?

Mohamed Bin Hammam sensed immediately we were referring to his successful campaign against Manchester United’s scheduled game in Kuala Lumpur and the AFC's silence on the English Premier League’s Barclays Asian Trophy being played in Hang Kong and the larger Peace Cup being played in Seoul, South Korea during the Asian Cup..

“We had agreements with the four host countries of this year’s Asian Cup that they would not promote any other football activity immediately before, during and immediately after the tournament. That was the issue.

“As for Manchester United, they took a lot of criticism for trying to keep their game in Malaysia but, when they became aware of Malaysia’s agreement with us, all credit to them, they did realise their responsibility.

“The Barclay Asian Trophy and any other events held outside of the four Asian Cup hosts were not big issues for us,” he explained.

“Really?,” we asked.

“Of course, in 2011 it will be different, the President assured. “In future we will insist there are no clashes with the Asian Cup. After all, it is only four weeks out of four years and we must protect Asia’s players and coaches during this important event.”