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The 'mystery' man in AFC's presidential race

1 May 2013-SBS: Scott McIntyre in Kuala Lumpur

asia president

Third party... Al Medlej could spring a surprise (Getty)

As the Asian Football Confederation gathers Thursday to elect a new President to replace the disgraced Mohamed Bin Hammam, most people are predicting a two-horse race between the UAE’s Yousef Al Serkal and Bahrain’s Shaikh Salman.

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There is however a slightly ‘mysterious’ third party from the Middle East who may yet prove to be a wildcard.

Head of AFC’s Marketing Committee, Saudi Arabia’s Dr. Hafez Al Medlej was a late candidate – apparently persuaded to run by a host of key political figures in the region who viewed him as a ‘safer’ option compared to Al Serkal or Shaikh Salman.

He has maintained though that he will only stand if he is the sole west Asian candidate – and there remains a slight possibility that his original backers may yet convince the other two Arab contenders to step aside.

I sat down with the Al Medlej in Kuala Lumpur to gauge his thoughts on how things may pan out.

TWG: Dr. Hafez, many people are a little confused as to why you’re actually running in this campaign, given there were already two strong candidates from your region. Can you tell us why?

In December last year I was approached by many leaders from the Arab world asking me about the situation in Asia and how I saw the situation with Yousef Al Serkal and Shaikh Salman Al Khalifa running against each other.

At that time the other candidate was the acting president, Zhang Jilong from China, and I told these people that it was in Jilong’s interests to divide the Arab world so for us the best way for us to regain the presidency was to unify West Asia and have one candidate.

They asked me then if I would be that candidate if both Salman and Al Serkal agreed to step aside and I said yes, as long as I am the only one because I didn’t want to turn two candidates into three.

We started talking that day and my position remains the same – if both candidates will withdraw I’ll run.

Yousef Al Serkal has said many times that he’s willing to withdraw for me if Salman did the same but he has never agreed.

We met recently and he refused the idea to unify Asia behind one candidate saying everyone has the right to run and try his luck and it’s a democracy. It makes sense but on the other hand we don’t want to divide the Arab world and I told them I will be there standing if they change their mind.

My intention was to actually withdraw earlier but some other leaders came to me and said that it could happen at any time that they may consider withdrawing.

TWG: Even now, less than 24 hours before the vote you think it’s a possibility?

You see the last few days there have been some allegations here and there and the tension is getting higher and the media coverage is focusing on the negative between the two candidates, so why not?

Maybe one of the wise people in the upper level of sport or government in those countries will come and say, listen enough is enough and we don’t want this tension to go even higher and increase the problems.

I was considering to come here and sit with the two guys and decide but that didn’t happen and then I see things are moving and there’s no difference whether you withdraw one day before the Congress or three days and my position is still the same – if I’m not the only Arabic candidate I will withdraw.

TWG: You must then be confident that there may be a late change and Salman and Al Serkal will withdraw.

I don’t think it will come from them but in the Arabic world we have a council of elder people who may advise Yousef and Salman and bring them together.

People from all the GCC; the best guy to convince Salman will be from Bahrain – maybe the King, maybe the President of the Olympic Committee, the son of the King. I think if he or anyone did this then we have a chance.

The problem is if I withdraw today and then tonight something happens, it’s only Makudi, so I have to delay my decision as long as I can.

TWG: Who were the ‘powerful people’ you talked about who are backing your campaign?

In the Gulf we have the federation, then above them there is the Olympic Committee and then in some countries there is a high council of sport, which is usually represented by a higher level of government ministries.

Also Kings, Emirs and Sheikhs; our situation is like a family structure so sometimes you cannot succeed with organizational structure but with a family structure you get a solution.

So an older Prince or sheikh – older in age and position will come and talk to a federation like Salman and Yousef and tell them what they should do and they will do it.

This is our way – we are different from others in that sense. It’s a phone call that one could receive and it changes everything.

TWG: There’s been a lot of speculation that this campaign for you is a chance to raise your profile ahead of a serious challenge in 2015 – is that correct?

That’s true. If nothing happens and I withdraw then we will have a new President. Everybody will give this President until the end of the year to see how well he is running the AFC because our first priority is to solve the diversity and love-lost with some members of our family.

So, if this new President can bring these people together and solve our problems then I don’t think we need to change that President.

But if not, believe me, then the first of January 2014 you will know if people are running for 2015 or not.

In any job you have a honeymoon or trial period, maybe three months, but in AFC it’s a big organization so maybe six months. So, in December this year people will look and judge this new President if he can bring Asia back together and then if not others will move.

I’m available but we have to think internally in Saudi Arabia who is the best but we will be the first to run in 2015 if there is a new election.

TWG: Finally, East and West Asia – a lot of people have talked about a split. Do you support that and what is the current status of Australia in Asia. There seems to still be some opposition.

I don’t support two federations but I’m a fan of separating the competitions and say the champion of the West plays the champion of the East to avoid issues of travel and timing of the competitions. But there is no need to split the federation because we have strength at FIFA because we are 46 nations.

Australia has added a lot to Asia and there are some good Australians working in and around the AFC. I see the short-term concerns of some that Australia maybe now take one of the World Cup spots and that prevents some countries from qualifying but I don’t like to look in a short-sighted way and in fact I would like to include all of the Oceania nations together within the AFC too.

Then we are more than 50 nations and that makes AFC stronger in FIFA. If I am President that will definitely be something I will put on the table for discussion.

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