By James M. Dorsey
Transparency appears nowhere on the radar of Asian football governors, as global football reels from the worst crisis in the sport’s history. That was evident in a terse statement issued by the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) announcing the resignation of its suspended general secretary, Dato Alex Soosay.
The statement made no mention of Soosay’s suspension, an investigation into the general secretary’s apparent attempt to tamper or hide documents related to an audit that uncovered suspected extensive corruption but has since been buried, or the fact that the AFC was forced to relieve Soosay of his duties after this blog revealed his attempts to obstruct the audit.
It also did not explain whether it would take action against the group’s finance director, Bryan Kuan Wee Hoong, who rejected Soosay’s alleged attempt, but in the three years since did not deem it necessary to report the incident.
Amid judicial investigations in the United States and Switzerland that have already led to indictments of 14 officials of world football body and regional football associations in the Americas as well as sport marketing companies and that could expand to the affairs of the Asian football body, the AFC limited itself to saying that it “thank(s) Dato’ Alex Soosay for his commitment to Asian football during his extensive 20-year-long career at the AFC and wishes him all the best for his future career”.
The AFC’s effort to project Soosay’s departure as a run-of-the-mill resignation, rather than the tip of an iceberg of mismanagement and potentially dubious dealings, follows its earlier attempt to steer attention away from the audit by falsely announcing at the time of Soosay’s suspension that it was related to a FIFA investigation rather than to the audit conducted by PricewaterhouseCooper (PwC).
Similarly, at a time that the judicial investigations have focused attention on the relationships between football executives and sport marketing companies, the AFC has yet to disclose the status of the investigation it announced into Soosay’s affairs, let alone how it intends to act on the wider ramification of the secretary general’s departure that involve recommendations of the audit that it has sought to bury for the past three years. Burial of that audit is all the more conspicuous since the eruption of the FIFA scandal.
The audit documented multiple questionable payments by disgraced former AFC president and FIFA vice president Mohammed Bin Hammam. Bin Hammam is believed to be one of the unidentified co-conspirators in the US indictments. He is also central to the Swiss investigation of FIFA’s awarding of the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 tournament to Qatar.
The audit also raised serious questions about the AFC’s $1bn marketing rights agreement with Singapore-based World Sport Group (WSG), and warned that the contract potentially could expose the AFC to charges of tax evasion, bribery, money laundering, and sanctions busting.
If anything, the AFC’s approach suggests that it believes that despite the global football governance crisis it can conduct business as usual with impunity. Its approach appears to justify widespread belief that FIFA and its regional confederations are incapable of putting their own house in order and that change can only be achieved if driven by external judicial and other forces.
AFC president Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa’s only known action related to the audit beyond ensuring that there would be no follow-up was the suspension and ultimate departure of Soosay.
The AFC has been similarly evasive in commenting on the crisis in global football governance that erupted last month on the eve of a FIFA congress with the early morning arrests of officials in Zurich, the raiding of the headquarters of FIFA in Zurich and of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) in Miami, and ultimately the resignation of FIFA president Sepp Blatter. The AFC has also yet to reveal what consequences it is drawing from the crisis in terms of reforms that would ensure good governance.
“The Asian Football Confederation confirms its position as previously outlined, namely that the AFC takes note of the FIFA president’s intention to step down at an extraordinary congress scheduled to be called later this year or early 2016, which will be the subject of the upcoming FIFA Executive Committee meeting on 20 July. AFC fully respects the decision of the FIFA president to step down and is sure that it was taken after deep and careful consideration,” was the sum all of what the AFC said.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies as Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-director of the Institute of Fan Culture of the University of Würzburg and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a forthcoming book with the same title.