x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Yousuf Al Serkal boasts his six campaign pledges before an AFC election among 'friends'

The tight race could come down to the UAE Football Association president and Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Kahlifa of Bahrain as other candidates fall behind.

Yousuf Al Serkal, the UAE Football Association president, above, and Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa of Bahrain, are two of the front-runners in Thursday's elections for the Asian Football Confederation presidency, spend a few moments together at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Kuala Lumpur this week. Photo courtesy of Hicham Tiknioune
Yousuf Al Serkal, the UAE Football Association president, above, and Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa of Bahrain, are two of the front-runners in Thursday's elections for the Asian Football Confederation presidency, spend a few moments together at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Kuala Lumpur this week. Photo courtesy of Hicham Tiknioune

KUALA LUMPUR // Dwarfed by the Petronas Twin Towers behind it, the Mandarin Oriental hotel seems unusually quiet given its presence in the heart of the Malaysian capital.

As guests walk past the lobby to the sprawling coffee shop, groups of people are sitting together, sipping drinks or craning over their laptops. To the casual visitor, those scenes might not seem out of the ordinary.

To those in the know, though, the silence is intriguing. On Thursday, the hotel will host the Extraordinary Congress of the Asian Football Confederation, which will vote for the new president of Asian football. And the division between the two primary camps in the contest is palpable.

The coffee shop has been divided down the centre, with one side reserved for the campaign team of Yousuf Al Serkal, the UAE Football Association president, while the entourage of Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa occupies the other side.

Not a word is exchanged between the two. Not even the customary pleasantries, which is not a good sign for the days following the elections.

Al Serkal insists there is no bad blood between the two candidates and he will continue working for the betterment of Asian football alongside Sheikh Salman, if the Bahraini is voted in by the delegates.

"We are good friends, especially the three of us myself, Dr Hafez [Al Medlej, the third West Asian candidate] and Sheikh Salman. On a very personal level, we are very good friends."

That is not to imply that a divide does not exist. Al Serkal said the rift formed because Sheikh Salman has allied himself with the Olympics Council of Asia, if not been influenced by an association with OCA president Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah.

"Sheikh Salman, at this moment, is feeling a bit bitter because he is being influenced by the OCA and Sheikh Ahmad," Al Serkal said. "That's what took Sheikh Salman away from our friendship, but we have not cut our ties. We are still good friends.

"I would like to keep this friendship. This competition between us, it should be based on an open mind and goodwill. We are not fighting on anything personal. It is a common competition. We see it all over the world – in sport, in politics ... It should not create any friction and problems or have any negative effect on our friendship."

While he has no qualms about working under Sheikh Salman at the AFC, Al Serkal is expecting a different result at the ballots. According to the UAE football chief, his six-point manifesto has been well-received by the member associations and he is on stronger ground than he was a month ago.

Al Serkal's six campaign pledges are to re-unite the Asian football fraternity, improve governance, ensure a balance between professional and amateur football, decentralise AFC activities, balance revenue distribution and embrace the diversity of Asia at the AFC House.

He has also promised to publish "all allowances and benefits given to me by the confederation, and expenditure incurred by my office", establish a hotline to encourage the exposure of wrongdoing, make all the AFC's commercial contracts available to its members for scrutiny and hire auditors to look at current agreements.

"I did not want to put hundreds of points [in his platform] because then people will say, 'He is bluffing'," Al Serkal said. "These six important points can really be implemented immediately, whether I am the president or someone else is the president.

"I have travelled around and I have noticed that a lot of countries that are classified to be in the middle [undecided voters] have a lot of confidence in my programme. They have been really supportive, they like the programme and they feel that it can be implemented easily. So I am gaining more confidence."

Sheikh Salman has also promised to clean up Asian football and work for unity in a seven-point programme, which pledges to fight match-fixing, doping and illegal betting, and promises full financial transparency.

"If I succeed on May 2, we need to keep our member associations and Fifa aware of all the wrongdoing in the past and how we can correct things," Sheikh Salman said. "I think for the last few years, it's been like a roller-coaster, up and down, that the AFC has suffered. It's time to steer the ship to calmer waters.

"I think I represent the new face of Asia. People who want to vote for change, the choice is clear."

Saudi Arabia's Al Medlej and Thailand's Worawi Makudi – the two other candidates – have also pledged to work for change and unity. Al Medlej, however, is expected to withdraw from before the delegates vote Thursday.

Given his low-key campaign, and the absence of his team from Mandarin, Makudi might not reach the final round of voting as well. But the Thai could be the kingmaker. If, as expected, Al Serkal and Sheikh Salman are the two last men standing, Makudi's vote bank could decide the outcome of a tense, tight contest.

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