“BLATTER rival gets hefty backing for Fifa presidency,” ITV News reported last week, claiming that an obscure Jordanian prince had “statements of support from the King of Bahrain and Prince Sufri Bolkiah, a senior member of the Brunei royal family”.
High-level, perhaps, but unlikely to prevent the 79-year-old Sepp Blatter being re-elected for his fifth four-year term as the most powerful person in world football on 29 May – since, as the ITV report eventually admitted, “neither of the royals will have a vote at the election”.
There has been similar overexcited jabber about the candidacy of former Portuguese star Luis Figo; but the truth is that Blatter’s victory was secured long ago, with $1.7bn of unaudited development grants to his 209 national associations, plus all the World Cup tickets that will fit in the overhead locker. A more interesting question is who will succeed him after his final term – assuming that even he must retire one day. Despite all the talk of clean hands and new brooms, a new generation with some highly questionable connections seems to be quietly preparing to take over.
The first sign will be the arrival on Fifa’s executive committee this spring of Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad. The 51-year-old Kuwaiti royal, a former head of Opec, is already the single most powerful operator in world Olympic politics, controlling a $440m development fund. His father created the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) in 1981 and Sheikh Ahmad inherited its presidency and papa’s International Olympic Committee (IOC) seat in 1990.
He can be confident that Asian football will elect him next month as one of its three members of the Fifa committee, enabling him to attend the congress a month later and vote for Blatter. Around the world national Olympic committees and football associations are tightly linked, and his financial support for Olympic football means that the presidency of Fifa could be his for the taking in 2019.
Not surprisingly, he insists the 2022 World Cup must be and will be held in Doha. Last June, when the Sunday Times revealed massive bribery by Qatari official Mohamed Bin Hammam, Ahmad dismissed the reports as “racist attempts and attacks” and promised to “stand with Qatar”.
The sheikh is clearly loyal to his associates – none more so than Gafur Rakhimov from Uzbekistan, a leading official in international amateur boxing who has worked with Ahmad since becoming a vice-president of his Olympic Council of Asia in 1999. This was four years after the FBI had opened an organised crime file on Rakhimov, alleging that he associated with Russian mafia bosses, although it is not known if Ahmad knew that at the time.
Eurasian crime syndicate
Rakhimov was denied a visa for the Sydney Olympics in 2000 because of these alleged connections, but that didn’t appear to disturb OCA president Ahmad. Nor did the sheikh seem bothered when the US Treasury froze his vice-president’s bank accounts worldwide in 2012; or when it officially announced in 2013 that Rakhimov was “a key member” of the Brothers’ Circle, a Eurasian crime syndicate, and “one of the leaders of Uzbek organised crime”, specialising in the production and trafficking of heroin.
Rakhimov made more headlines in January last year on the eve of the Winter Olympics, when ABC News in New York alleged he had bribed IOC members with “bags of cash” to give the Sochi games to Russia. A Rakhimov aide confirmed that he helped Russia win votes through his IOC contacts – “He has great influence” – but denied that he had bribed them. Meanwhile the US Treasury repeated its drug-trafficking allegations in a further report last July. Yet none of this has affected Rakhimov’s position as a vice-president of Sheikh Ahmad’s OCA.
The sheikh’s long-serving OCA director general, Ahmad Muttaleb, was caught ripping off $62,400 in a scam on the gullible promoters of Salt Lake City’s bid to host the 2002 Winter Olympics, but he too kept his job. Muttaleb was later revealed to have trousered hefty kickbacks from Fifa’s marketing company, ISL, but he was only eased out of the sheikh’s retinue after the BBC’s Panorama caught him, on camera, in the very act of selling IOC votes. With no hint of sarcasm, when Kuwait’s football association nominated Sheikh Ahmad to Fifa’s executive committee this year it praised his “commitment to promote equality and good governance”.
Having spent so long running the OCA the sheikh should feel at home in Fifa. As Blatter slithers towards his ninth decade – and a fifth term in office at the organisation – it must begin looking for an heir. It may just have found one.