x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Q&A: Mohammad bin Hammam (the AFC president)

Q Can the Asian Champions League ever establish itself on a par with the European Champions League?

Can the Asian Champions League ever establish itself on a par with the European Champions League? It definitely can. Given the potential Asia has there is no reason why it can't. But it will take a lot of doing and AFC is making the right efforts in this direction. We have already taken the first step by revamping our Champions League on fully professional lines, featuring teams from the top 10 AFC member associations who have fulfilled the strict criteria.

Are you pleased with how the move towards professionalism in Asia has progressed? This is the dawn of professionalism in Asian football. We were No 1 in amateur football. Now we are shifting towards professional football, adopting professional practices. I am happy with the way things are going although there is still a lot to be covered. How do you think the UAE Pro League has performed in its first season?

They have played a dozen games so far but the competition seems to be intense. Do you think Asian countries need to concentrate on developing domestic football rather than bringing over big foreign teams to play? Yes. That should be their primary concern. How important is it that World Cup 2018 or 2022 is held in Asia? Asia last hosted the World Cup in 2002. If an Asian country gets to host it in 2018 - and five Asian countries have expressed their interest - then it will be 16 years since we last hosted it. It is very important that Asia hosts it because of the stature of the event and the wonders it can work for football in the continent. The fact that five Asian countries are in the fray speaks volumes about the confidence of these countries in hosting such a big tournament.

What are your hopes for the Club World Cup when it is held in Abu Dhabi in December? It is a matter of pride for Asia that after Japan, the UAE has won the rights to hosting the Fifa Club World Cup. I am confident that they will host a wonderful event, which will be remembered by one and all. What is your relationship like with Sepp Blatter? I enjoy a warm and friendly relationship with him. Sepp is a visionary football leader and I have great respect for him. Fifa and world football have made great strides under his leadership.

What do you think of Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim al Khalifa's proposal to stand against you in the May election for your seat on Fifa's executive committee? The AFC is a democratic institution and we welcome his right to stand for election. Should the AFC headquarters be moved from Kuala Lumpur? It is not best for AFC HQ to be moved from Kuala Lumpur. It is best that whatever country is hosting the AFC that there is a formalised agreement that gives AFC its right as an international governing body. Whatever country is willing to do this, then that is the best location to move to.

What is the latest situation on the English Premier League's proposal to play a 39th game in Asia? My position is clear: we welcome the EPL and our approach to the idea is that we would like to see the EPL work hand-in-hand with Uefa, AFC and Fifa to implement such a scheme outside England. The EPL are mature enough to understand that it is not all about money, but it is about what legacy they can leave behind them in Asia and how they can support other clubs and leagues in Asia to come up with their football.

How has Asian football changed since you became AFC president in 2002, and what challenges does it face? When I took over in 2002, Asian football was mired in amateurism, full of potential but without direction and the benefits of a professional outlook. Now we have a holistic development plan - Vision Asia - that is being enthusiastically embraced by Asian countries, new competitions that have created a level playing field, a solid grassroots and youth development programme that ultimately creates a pool of talented players, among others. The massive size of Asia is a big challenge.

akunawicz@thenational.ae