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Politics overshadows on-field progress in Asia

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 22, 2012 at 11:09 pm •  Published: December 22, 2012
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A year of impressive progress in Asian football on the field, including two semifinal berths at the London Olympics, has been overshadowed by yet more corruption and political infighting off the field.

The Asian football headlines were dominated by Mohamed bin Hammam. The Qatari, who took the post of AFC president in 2002, was found guilty of vote-buying during his challenge against FIFA president Sepp Blatter in 2011 and FIFA's Ethics Committee suspended him from all football activity for life.

The Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned that ban in July but bin Hammam, 63, was then put under provisional bans by both FIFA and AFC as those bodies investigated allegations of financial irregularities during his nine-year tenure. On December 17, he resigned from football and was banned for life by FIFA.

"It has been damaging for Asian football," AFC vice-president Yousef Al-Serkal told The Associated Press. "It is has been unfortunate that something like that happened to the AFC at a time when we are trying to develop and improve the standard of football and that depends on the image and sponsorships of the AFC.

"Such a reputation when it is the concerning the president of the AFC will affect the image negatively. Normally, as we know, big companies as sponsors avoid to be partners with any organization that has such a reputation."

In an interview with the AP in November, bin Hammam still protested his innocence and blamed outside forces.

"The AFC is no longer its own master," said Bin Hammam. "It is now controlled partly by FIFA and partly by the Olympic Council of Asia. These people (at the AFC) believe that FIFA and the OCA are going to either put them in a more powerful position or consolidate their current position."

On the field, the biggest story of 2012 was in China where Shanghai Shenhua made a splash in the transfer market by signing former Chelsea strikers Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka.

The initial excitement was soon overtaken by gloom as the club performed poorly in the Chinese Super League amid constant speculation that the pair would soon return to Europe as a result of a power struggle at the club. As the year nears its end, it is still widely expected that Anelka will leave and Drogba could follow.

Champion Guangzhou Evergrande started China's big spending in 2011 and restated their ambitions in mid-season by hiring 2006 World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi.

Philippe Troussier, who led Japan to the second round at the 2002 World Cup, now leads a team in China's second division and believes that signing big-name stars is not the only way for success.

"It's a good thing if the successful clubs use this situation to develop Chinese football in terms of youth development and education of coaches," the Frenchman said. "At the moment China has no choice and need to import foreign expertise. It is behind nations like Korea and Japan and not ahead of others such as Qatar, UAE and Bahrain."

While China still struggles to produce players to export to Europe, the trade in Japanese and Korean players continues to rise. One of the biggest transfers of the year saw Japan international Shinji Kagawa leave German champion Borussia Dortmund to sign for Manchester United in June. In July, Korea's Park Ji-sung left United after seven seasons to join big-spending but poorly-performing Queens Park Rangers.

Japan and South Korea also impressed in the 2012 Olympics. Japan defeated highly-rated Spain and Korea eliminated host nation Great Britain. In the play-off for bronze, Korea defeated its neighbor 2-0.

"Some Asian teams are moving ahead as football is now about efficiency, accuracy, speed and unity and not judo or rugby as in some nations," Troussier said. "I sincerely think that Japan can win a World Cup."

Korea also tasted success on the club front as Ulsan Horangi became the third K-League team in four years to win the Asian Champions League, defeating Al Ahli of Saudi Arabia 3-0. Al Kuwait lifted the second-tier AFC Cup.

The major focus for the coming year will be qualification for the 2014 World Cup. With the final round of qualifiers just past the halfway stage for most of the ten teams, Japan is eight points clear at the top of Group B and very close to confirming its participation in a fifth successive tournament.

Australia, whose domestic scene was energized by Sydney FC's signing of Alessandro Del Piero ahead of the 2012/2013 A-League season, started slowly but is on course for Group B's second automatic qualification spot. In Group A, two of South Korea, Iran and Uzbekistan are expected to head to Brazil.

The early months of 2013 will be dominated by the election for the new president of the AFC, likely to be held in April 2013. Chinese official Zhang Jilong has been the acting president in bin Hammam's absence since May 2011 but is to face stiff challenges from colleagues, including vice-president Al-Serkal.

"I am confident that I can lead the group and the AFC in an effective way," Al-Serkal said. "Because of my experience in various committees since 1991, I have the experience to do so. I am well-known in Asia and can bring the AFC together."


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