Umaid Wasim – DAWN
ISLAMABAD: AFC president Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa assured Pakistan of full support by Asia’s football governing body and his native Bahrain.
Talking to Dawn on the sidelines of the SAFF Women’s Championship final, the chief of Asian football also said he hopes football to continue its rise in Pakistan.
“This SAFF Championship is proof that football — and women’s football — is continuing to rise,” Sheikh Salman said about his first visit to the country. “I’ve had a wonderful experience in Pakistan and it’s a great place to be. I’m honoured to be here and the hosting of the tournament has been spectacular and I’m really impressed.”
Reflecting on the progress of Pakistan men’s team, the Bahraini hailed the change his compatriot Mohammad Al Shamlan has brought since taking charge of the team.
“It’s great to see the Pakistan team gradually getting better since Shamlan has taken over,” he said. “The fact that we sent him [Shamlan] to Pakistan is the proof that we continue to support Pakistan football.
“Previously Salman Sharida was the coach of Pakistan and did well. Now Shamlan is here, doing the same. Apart from that, women’s football is also improving here.
“We have a role in supporting Pakistan. We always lend a hand to our friends and not only do I support Pakistan in my position of Bahraini football but also as the head of the AFC.
“Moreover, Pakistan and Bahrain have enjoyed very good relations since a long time,” he added.
Sheikh Salman took the AFC helm on a shorter tenure after mid-term elections were held in 2013 following previous head Mohammad Bin Hamman’s ban by FIFA over a bribery scandal relating to the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar.
His arrival at the AFC hot seat, though, is largely believed to have brought stability to the Asian body.
“The priority is to bring the whole family together and what I’ve accomplished with the support has helped us achieve a lot during my short tenure,” he said.
Signalling his intent to run for re-election, the AFC chief lined up aims for his next tenure.
“In the next term, I will continue our work and we need to focus on a lot of things. We’ve to improve the standard of Asian football and bring the members even more closer. Unity is key for the AFC members as we have to ensure that we’re on one page considering the pressure that is on us,” he stressed.
The pressure Sheikh Salman is talking about regards the naming of a number of AFC members in the bidding process for the 2022 World Cup by The Sunday Times.
“We have to stand firm because these allegations are affecting us,” he stated. “I feel that Qatar 2022 is about Asian prestige and we, the whole of AFC, need to cooperate in holding the event in the most befitting manner possible.”
On the pitch, though, Sheikh Salman hopes Asian teams to improve from their dismal performance in the World Cup held earlier this year.
All four AFC representatives — Japan, South Korea, Iran and Australia — failed to make it past their group at the showpiece.
“We had a disappointing World Cup in terms of performances but Asia, I think, does tend to surprise,” he said.
“We’re looking at ways in which we improve the overall level of football in the continent and I hope there will be better results for Asia in future World Cups.”
How about an Asian team winning the World Cup in Asia in 2022?
“Well, you can never predict things in football but what I’d like to say is that I think the World Cup in Qatar would be one of the best because we will be hosting it,” he stated.
Sheikh Salman is in the task force that will decide the timing of the World Cup in Qatar.
FIFA has so far proposed two slots — January/February and November/December 2022 — to stage the World Cup to avoid the searing heat of the Gulf summer.
The European Clubs Association (ECA), though, doesn’t agree with that timing.
“Everyone is looking at their own interests regarding the timing of the 2022 World Cup,” said the AFC president. “… but we have to look at what is in the best interest of the whole world.”
In their bid for uplifting football in the continent, the AFC has expanded the Asian Cup — with the 2019 edition to see 24 teams competing instead of 16.
“We have to look at football at a very large scale,” emphasised Sheikh Salman. “We have to ensure football is played in every country and every region.
“With the expansion of the AFC Cup we hope to give teams from other regions a chance to qualify. This will give them the chance to play with the best and improve.”
Published in Dawn, November 22th, 2014