There will be no Saudi Arabian or United Arab Emirates delegate on the Asian Football Confederation's executive committee elected by 47 member federations Saturday. Qatari candidate Saoud Al Mohannadi retained his AFC vice-presidency representing west Asia for four more years, and gained a seat on the FIFA Council. It brings Qatar closer to FIFA decision-making for the first time since 2011, when Mohamed bin Hammam was suspended — and later banned for life — for financial wrongdoing months after the gas-rich emirate won its World Cup hosting rights.
Saturday's results continue Qatar's winning run in 2019, after its national team was the surprise winner of the Asian Cup in February, beating Saudi Arabia and host nation UAE before lifting the trophy in Abu Dhabi.
Saudi Arabia and UAE have led a diplomatic and logistical boycott of Qatar for almost two years. The political standoff has included exerting pressure on Qatar to share some World Cup games, likely with Kuwait and Oman, in an expanded 48-team tournament.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino told AFC members Saturday that the world soccer body and Qatar are still analyzing the prospect of adding another 16 teams. "It will be a nice achievement if the first World Cup with 48 teams is played in Asia," said Infantino, who has argued that extra teams will accelerate soccer development worldwide. He will preside over a June 3 FIFA Council meeting and June 5 congress of 211 member federations in Paris to decide.
FIFA has consistently said Qatar must agree to any tournament expansion, and Al Mohannadi can represent his country's expected opposition in the council discussions. The main business in Kuala Lumpur was for the AFC to re-elect its president Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa of Bahrain — in his absence — for four more years unopposed after Al Mohannadi and a candidate from the UAE withdrew last month.
Sheikh Salman, who is also the senior vice-president of FIFA, could not attend after the death of his mother this week. Infantino led delegates in observing a few minutes of silence to mourn and show that "we are with him."
Speaking on behalf of the Bahraini royal, newly-elected FIFA Council member Praful Patel said: "I am sure that with your continued support and solidarity, we can all take Asian football to even greater heights."
Patel, a former aviation minister in India's government, won one of the six seats on FIFA's ruling council elected Saturday. Other winners were Chinese government official Du Zhaocai, Kohzo Tashima of Japan, and, for the women's seat, Mahfuza Akhter Kiron of Bangladesh.
An ally of Qatar, Mariano Araneta of the Philippines, retained his seat while South Korea soccer leader Chung Mong-Gyu, who sided with the Saudis in recent Asian soccer politics, lost his. On the eve of the election, Chung — whose family owns World Cup sponsor Hyundai — formally complained to the AFC's election oversight panel about Qatar's campaign tactics, including giving Araneta use of a private jet to visit some voters' countries.
Sheikh Salman was elected to succeed Bin Hammam in 2013, and is the longest-serving president of any major soccer body after years of scandals and international investigations of corruption linked to international soccer.
A sprawling American investigation of bribery helped remove a key Asian soccer power broker, Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah, from his FIFA position in 2017. Still, the Kuwaiti sheikh — who has stepped aside from his influential IOC positions pending a separate criminal trial in Switzerland — was in Kuala Lumpur this week on the sidelines of the AFC elections.
Though Sheikh Salman was supported into office by Sheikh Ahmad six years ago, he cemented his position by expanding the Asian Cup to 24 teams and securing the AFC's finances while giving more money back to members. Last year, the AFC signed an 8-year, multi-billion dollar commercial rights deal with China-backed DDMC Fortis.
Infantino on Saturday said Sheikh Salman's re-election will help the region move forward in stability. An uncontested election was "important to show a united football family in Asia," said the FIFA leader, who edged Sheikh Salman to win his presidency three years ago, and has no opponent for re-election in June in Paris.
Dunbar reported from Geneva
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