The Qatari challenger to Sepp Blatter is alleged to have arranged bribes for up to 25 presidential voters [EPA]
The Qatari challenger to 13-year incumbent Sepp Blatter has been accused of arranging bribes for up to 25 presidential voters
After dragging Asian football into the modern era, Mohamed bin Hammam picked the fight of his life by challenging Sepp Blatter, a former ally but now a bitter foe, for the FIFA presidency.
Bin Hammam, 61, campaigned on an anti-corruption platform but has now pulled out of the race for the most powerful job in the world’s biggest sport just hours before facing FIFA’s ethics committee to answer bribery allegations.
The Qatari insisted his decision to withdraw should not be linked to the corruption probe and vowed to appear before the committee to clear his name of what he called “baseless allegations” against him.
Allegations of corruption against sitting FIFA president Blatter and his challenger had threatened to overshadow Saturday’s showpiece European Champions League final, won by Barcelona.
Bin Hammam said he felt compelled to halt his candidacy to protect the good name of the sport.
“It saddens me that standing up for the causes that I believed in has come at a great price – the degradation of FIFA’s reputation. This is not what I had in mind for FIFA and this is unacceptable,” he wrote on his website.
Bin Hammam is due to be questioned by FIFA’s ethics committee later Sunday, although he denies any wrongdoing.
He had previously hinted that Switzerland’s Blatter, who is vying for a fourth and final term as FIFA boss, was behind the explosive allegations against him.
The Asian supremo with the cool manner and regal bearing had promised to introduce more openness within FIFA, which is fighting its own graft claims related to the controversial battles to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
Bin Hammam has long enjoyed a reputation as a moderniser in Asian football, having overseen the launch of the AFC Champions League and the admission of Australia into the world’s biggest football confederation.
He has also pushed to make clubs and leagues in the region more commercially viable, urging them to look to the success of England’s Premier League as an example.
“Asia, with its huge population, has the most talents, and I believe that the world has yet to feel the vibration of Asian football,” bin Hammam said.
But his nine-year leadership of the AFC has not been without controversy.
In 2009, there were moves to oust him from the FIFA executive committee amid complaints of his “autocratic” style after he upset powerful factions in the regional football body.
“We all supported him in the beginning but… I am very sorry to say, we have created a dictator,” Bahrain’s Sheikh Salman Ebrahim Al Khalifa said at the time.
Bin Hammam, who rejects such accusations, also fell out with Blatter two years ago. The two men were allies, with bin Hammam one of the driving forces behind Blatter’s campaign for election in 1998.
But Blatter reportedly refused to back bin Hammam in his fight for survival in 2009, and publicly slapped down the Qatari’s move to bar New Zealand teams from Australia’s A-League.
The Swiss had played down the threat posed by his rival for the top post, suggesting bin Hammam did not have support from other confederations except Asia.
But bin Hammam’s success in securing the 2022 World Cup for Qatar prompted him to run for the job, though he had to fend off allegations of bribery by Qatari officials, overshadowing the achievement.
Bin Hammam is also a former head of Qatar’s volleyball and table tennis associations and is a fan of Spanish giants Barcelona.