KARACHI: South Asian Football Federation (SAFF) chief Kazi Salahuddin denied on Monday that it had merged into the South West Asian Football Federation (SWAFF), with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) confirming that its president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa wasn’t present in Jeddah where the meeting of the Saudi Arabia-led body took place last week.

Kazi was one of several football officials from South Asia, including two from Pakistan, who were part of the meeting which also involved officials from several Gulf countries. Initial reports indicated that the SWAFF was a merger of the SAFF and West Asian Football Federation (WAFF) but with several national federations not being part of the new body, Kazi said that wasn’t the case.

“We can have a joining of west and south … we can work together with separate identities,” the Bangladesh Football Federation (BFF) president told Dawn in a telephone interview. “However, none of that is official at the moment.”

“We only had a meeting where the Saudi Arabian Football Federation said it was looking forward towards technical, financial and infrastructure development for its South Asian counterparts.”

Kazi’s denial comes amid officials of most South Asian federations, who attended the meeting, remaining coy over whether they had joined the SWAFF or not.

The Pakistan Football Federation (PFF), who were represented by Sardar Naveed Haider Khan and Dr Fazl-ur-Rehman at the meeting, and the All India Football Federation (AIFF) have limited their statements so far to that they “are currently examining the offer to join SWAFF”.

It comes despite the SWAFF, in the news release announcing its formation, claiming that Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives had decided to be part of it alongside Gulf nations Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen.

Kazi refuted that. “None of the [South Asian federation] presidents have shown an interest in disbanding the SAFF,” he said. “Most federation presidents weren’t there at the meeting so nothing is final. I alone can’t decide that. Only once the presidents meet [on May 25], we will decide further course of action.”

Asked how he could say nothing was final when he posed for a photograph alongside other officials in front of a backdrop that clearly had SWAFF written on it — both in English and Arabic — alongside a logo, Kazi said: “You cannot say no to your hosts, can you? An idea was floated but it’s certainly not something that is done.”

SHEIKH SALMAN ABSENT

Denials from South Asian federations have come amid rumours that the SWAFF is aiming to undermine AFC chief Sheikh Salman of Bahrain with its honourary president Turki Al Al-Sheikh, the head of Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority, showing his influence as he seeks influential positions in Asian and world football.

The SWAFF meeting took place ahead of the Saudi King Cup final at the weekend. Among those present in the royal box, watching the final between Al-Ittihad and Al-Faisaly were Confederation of African Football (CAF) president Ahmad Ahmad of Madagascar, United States Soccer Federation (USSF) chief Carlos Cordeiro and Mexico football boss Decio de Maria.

The biggest indication that this was a show of Saudi power play is that Sheikh Salman wasn’t there.

“No he wasn’t in Jeddah,” the AFC spokesperson told Dawn on Monday, when asked if the AFC president was present at the Kings Cup final.

It had not informed, till the filing of this report, whether or not Shiekh Salman was actually invited to the match.

The AFC also did not comment on how the formation of SWAFF will alter the current regional division of the continent. It’s 47 regions are split into five regions: SAFF, WAFF, Central Asian Football Association (CAFA), East Asian Football Federation (EAFF) and ASEAN Football Federation (AFF).

“Until the AFC has received detailed proposals from the Member Associations of the South West Asian Football Federation, we will not be able to comment,” its spokesperson said.

According to Middle East analyst James M. Dorsey, Sheikh Salman sees the SWAFF as a challenge to AFC and his position.

“My suspicion is that Salman wasn’t there [at the meeting] because he didn’t want to give the SWAFF an endorsement,” Dorsey, the author of the book The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, told Dawn on Monday.

SAUDI POWER PLAY

The formation of the SWAFF comes after Jordan football chief Prince Ali bin Hussein refused the Saudi demand of moving the WAFF headquarters from his country to Saudi Arabia.

“The Saudis wanting WAFF was purely a power play,” Dorsey added. “Relations between Saudi Arabia and Jordan are also strained over Amman’s refusal to back the 11-month-old Saudi-UAE-led boycott of Qatar.”

With the SWAFF being a threat to both Sheikh Salman and Prince Ali, who do not see eye to eye, Dorsey predicts there could be an alliance in the offing. “They may hate each other but threats create strange bedfellows,” he said.

While Saudi Arabia are the better football nation than Qatar, it is the latter which has more influence off the pitch.

“It’s not about performance on the pitch but as the host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qatar is a major player,” Dorsey said. “It is potentially why Saudi Arabia is looking to form alliances with Asian football federations to exhibit its own power.”

That power is crucial for Turki’s ambitions to fill in the void left by Kuwait’s Sheikh Ahmed Al Fahad Al Sabah at world football’s top table.

Al Sabah resigned from his position as a member of the FIFA Council last year after being linked to a fraud case.

“He isn’t there yet,” Dorsey said when asked if Turki is en route to becoming Asian sports biggest powerbroker. “Al-Sabah is still in the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and heads the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA). But getting into a position of influence in Asian football will help him get there.”

For that, Turki has turned to football federations in South Asia, who at the moment are coy over their new allegiance.

Published in Dawn, May 15th, 2018

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