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Step back for Sheikh Ahmad, Asia’s sporting power broker

Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah

HONG KONG: After almost a decade as one of the game’s main power brokers, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah stepped away from his involvement in world football on Sunday as the US Department of Justice probe into FIFA’s affairs claimed another victim. His decision came after US Court documents made reference to a Kuwaiti Olympic official as being involved in the bribery case of FIFA’s audit and compliance committee member, Richard Lai.

Sheikh Ahmad has “strongly” denied any wrongdoing and said he resigned the positions he held in football to avoid “distractions” for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) as well as global governing body FIFA.

Whether it will end for good the fabulously wealthy Kuwaiti’s involvement in football’s power games is open to question. A high-ranking member of Kuwait’s royal family and former Secretary General of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Sheikh Ahmad has been involved in power games of one sort or other for most of his adult life.

In recent years, they have been played out in the sporting realm, where his acquisition of jobs alone is evidence of his huge influence.

His titles include President of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), member of the International Olympic Committee, President of the Association of the National Olympic Committees (ANOC), President of the Asian Handball Federation and Honorary President of Kuwait Football Association (KFA).

In football, Sheikh Ahmad sat on FIFA’s Reform Committee and the Executive Committee of the Asian confederation. He was appointed President of the OCA at the age of 27 in 1991, succeeding his father Sheikh Fahad who had been killed in the Iraq invasion of Kuwait the previous year. Sheikh Fahad, then president of the KFA, sparked one of the biggest controversies in World Cup history when he came down from the stands to summon his players from the pitch until the referee agreed to disallow a France goal at the 1982 finals.

The son shared his father’s passion for football, even if his involvement in the game outside Kuwait was initially on an informal basis. As head of ANOC, he was a key supporter of Thomas Bach when the German replaced Jacques Rogge as president of the IOC in 2013 and it was in an attempt at kingmaking that he first stepped into the spotlight in football.

Public backing
After years orchestrating campaigns behind the scenes through his Olympic connections, he publicly backed Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa’s failed 2009 attempt to oust then-AFC president Mohammed bin Hammam from his seat on the FIFA Executive Committee. The move was the first of a series of proxy battles between Sheikh Ahmad and Qatari Bin Hammam, with the enmity between the pair fuelling an escalation in the battle for control of the Asian game.

The Kuwaiti’s camp had greater success two years later when the Sheikh Ahmad-backed Prince Ali bin Hussain defeated Bin Hammam ally Chung Mong-joon to become Asia’s FIFA Vice President’s position in 2011. He then backed incumbent Sepp Blatter against Bin Hammam in the FIFA presidential election later the same year, a poll from which the AFC President was ultimately barred. Sheikh Ahmad was a key supporter of Bahraini Sheikh Salman when he was elected president of the AFC in 2013 following Bin Hammam’s lifetime ban from the game for corruption. Two years later, he won a place on the FIFA Executive Committee and backed Blatter as the Swiss saw off the challenge of Sheikh Ahmad’s former protege Prince Ali.

In the lead-up to last year’s FIFA presidential election, he was courted by both Sheikh Salman and Gianni Infantino before the Swiss emerged victorious. Sheikh Ahmad’s influence seemed to be at its peak but, while he was making waves on the global stage, there was controversy at home. He endured a very public family feud that saw him handed a suspended six-month prison sentence for quoting remarks by the country’s ruler without permission in 2015. The conviction was later quashed.

Kuwait was also banned by FIFA and the IOC over government interference in sport stemming from Sheikh Ahmad’s domestic issues. The immediate impact of his decision to withdraw from all of his football positions means next week he will not stand for re-election for the FIFA Council, which replaced the Executive Committee, when the AFC meets for its congress in Bahrain. As he retains his place at the top table in the Olympic movement, however, the likelihood that he exercises no future influence on the world of football looks slim.- Reuters

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