DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – As he rose through the ranks of world football, Mohamed bin Hammam came to understand the importance of money in the global game.
The 62-year-old Qatari reportedly bankrolled FIFA president Sepp Blatter's 1998 re-election campaign and his critics contend he installed a culture of gift giving and favoritism after becoming Asian Football Confederation president in 2002.
As he began his campaign to replace Blatter earlier this year, the construction magnate with close ties to the Qatari ruling family faced an uphill battle. He opened his campaign with a promise to raise the limits on development grants for federations from $500,000 to $1 million if elected.
As his campaign faltered and support swung overwhelmingly to Blatter, bin Hammam was accused of offering envelopes containing $40,000 in cash to Caribbean members with the tacit understanding they would support him.
The payments came to light just days before the June election, forcing bin Hammam to withdraw from the election and leading to his suspension. Last weekend, he was handed a lifetime ban by a FIFA ethics committee. He denies all the charges and is challenging the ban, claiming the money was simply an exchange of gifts
Despite the FIFA ban, he has refused to quit as AFC president and on Friday, the continental body's executive committee declined to cut him loose, deciding to delay a decision on whether to hold an election to replace him.
The 19 delegates who met Friday in Kuala Lumpur agreed to establish a committee to ''assess the current situation and advise and guide'' acting AFC president Zhang Jilong in the business of the confederation. No date for the formation of the committee was announced.
Under AFC statutes which only allow the position of president to be vacant for one year, an extraordinary congress and election must be held if bin Hammam's appeals aren't resolved by May 30 next year.
Bin Hammam is the most senior official ever convicted of corruption in the governing body's 107-year history and the third serving FIFA executive committee member banned from football for ethics violations in the past nine months. A fourth, FIFA vice-president Jack Warner, dodged the panel's judgment by resigning from all of his football positions last month before answering charges about his part in the alleged bribery plot.
The crackdown has been portrayed by FIFA as a sign it is getting tough on corruption that just months ago threatened to tear apart the organization over allegations that the 2018 World Cup bid won by Russia and the 2022 bid won by Qatar were tainted by vote buying.
Critics said the conviction - especially bin Hammam's - simply shows that FIFA applies its anti-corruption rules selectively.
''The verdict shows that FIFA is willing to police corruption when it's in the direct interest of Sepp Blatter at election time,'' said Grant Wahl, the chief football writer at Sports Illustrated who attempted to run for the FIFA presidency but didn't receive a formal nomination. ''But I'm still skeptical that this will bring about any real change in the FIFA culture. The same people are still in power.''
FIFA this week expanded the bin Hammam investigation, demanding that all the Caribbean football leaders at the meeting where bin Hammam handed out cash explain themselves or face a lifetime ban.
''What FIFA needs at moment is to show that it is really zero tolerant and investigating all allegations and sanctioning as far as there is proof of breach of the code of ethics,'' Transparency International sports adviser Sylvia Schenk said. ''If they are just punishing bin Hammam and not looking into other cases, this will not send a message of zero tolerance. It will give a bad impression. So I'm quite sure FIFA will continue. They have to.''
Bin Hammam's rise began in the late 1990s when, according to British authors Andrew Jennings and David Yallop, the former football club and federation president in Qatar helped raise funds for Blatter during his 1998 campaign. UEFA President Michel Platini recalled earlier this year that he and bin Hammam were crucial to Blatter's defeat of then-UEFA leader Lennart Johansson.
''I am friends with bin Hammam, too. We were with Blatter, to fight to put Blatter at the head of FIFA,'' Platini told The Associated Press.
Elected as the president of the Asian Football Confederation in 2002, bin Hammam was credited with raising the profile of the body during his tenure, Gold said. He took the lead in promoting women's football and even set term limits for own position.
Shy and private even by Gulf standards, bin Hammam launched his FIFA election bid with a promise to increase transparency in the sport's world governing body. He never before had been accused of any wrongdoing within FIFA and used his campaign stops to rail against Blatter, whose long tenure he claimed gave the perception that FIFA was corrupt.
Former AFC general secretary Peter Velappan said he began to see a change in bin Hammam after he won a second presidential term at the Asian body in 2006. The victory embolden bin Hammam and he sidelined traditional footballing powers such as Saudi Arabia and South Korea in favor of smaller nations like Nepal, Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Central Asian republics whom he promoted to seats on the AFC executive committee.
''In the last two years I was there, he really acted like God,'' said Velappan, who claims to have brought bin Hammam into the AFC, but eventually had a falling out with him before leaving in 2007. ''He thought he was going to be the next FIFA president.''
Bin Hammam's polarizing presence came to a head when he ran for a seat on FIFA's executive committee in 2009. The election became bitter, with bin Hammam accusing the Korean federation of bankrolling his opponent Sheik Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa of Bahrain and the Koreans suggesting that bin Hammam ''was suffering from mental problems'' and acting like the ''head of a crime organization.''
Bin Hammam was instrumental in bringing the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, but the decision was surrounded by allegations that several African voters were bribed to support the bid which beat out the United States in the final round.
Bin Hammam also was hurt by allegations that a FIFA executive committee member and ally Worawi Makudi of Thailand allegedly was one of several voters to ask for inducements to support England's failed 2018 bid.
Bin Hammam has tried to dismiss his actions in Trinidad as business as usual within FIFA. He has admitted transferring $360,000 to the CFU to pay for delegates' travel to Trinidad, arranged through Warner's family travel agency, plus accommodation and conference expenses.
''This is a normal, normal, normal practice,'' bin Hammam told Britain's Sky Sports News, pointing at a watch on his left wrist. ''This watch is a gift from somebody. It is a gesture. When I received it, I did not give anything.''
Chuck Blazer, a U.S. member of the FIFA executive body who sparked the bribery investigation, called the suggestion ''ludicrous.''
Bahamas officials alerted Blazer to the cash offers and eventually whistleblowers from Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands gave witness statements alleging that Warner informed them that he advised bin Hammam to provide cash gifts that could be spent as they chose.
Upon learning of the payments, Blazer called FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke and told him what evidence he had.
''I told him I am very concerned,'' Blazer said. ''We have never bought a vote in the 21 years that I have been at CONCACAF. The idea that culture is changing is something I can't stand.''
Blazer, who has sat alongside bin Hammam on the executive committee for 15 years, said he still doesn't know what drove the Qatari to offer the cash. But he said FIFA's rules are not open to interpretation.
''Look, there is code of ethics. It's very specific. There will be no cash gifts of any size, of any amount,'' Blazer said.
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