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Saturday, April 25, 2015

Alleged AFC cover-up effort highlights Asian soccer’s lack of proper governance

By James M. Dorsey

A senior executive of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) allegedly requested in 2012 at least one of his subordinates to tamper with or hide documents related to enquiries by independent auditors and FIFA into management of the group by Mohammed Bin Hammam, the AFC’s ousted president and vice president of the world soccer body, according to claims made by a subordinate in two statements and sources with first-hand knowledge close to the Kuala Lumpur-based group.

The official who reportedly requested the tampering or hiding of documents bearing his name or signature, AFC general secretary, Dato' Alex Soosay, subsequently alleged in a police report on Aug 17, 2012, that Mr. Bin Hammam had embezzled some $10 million, the Malaysian Commercial Crime Investigation Department (JSJK) told the Malay Mail. The police handed the case over to the Malaysian attorney general who decided not to take further action.

Mr. Soosay this week vehemently denied the alleged cover up in a telephone conversation with the Malay Mail as he was boarding a flight from Dubai to Bahrain. “If there was something, wouldn't they have investigated me? This is just a smear (campaign) against me. There is no such thing, “Mr. Soosay said.  "Where is this coming from and why now?" he asked.

Mr. Soosay stressed that the investigations had been shut down and that he had not been asked by FIFA or any other part to make a statement. "This whole thing is being taken out of context… There were no cash advancements ... everything (was) documented. PwC has given their report, FIFA has investigated. Everything is settled and the case closed. There is no such thing," Mr. Soosay said, referring to an independent audit in 2012 by PricewaterhouseCooper (PwC) on behalf of the AFC of Mr. Bin Hammam’s financial and commercial management of the group

In a written and signed statement dated July 26, 2012 and a video statement taped the same day by Michael John Pride, a FIFA security officer, AFC Finance Director Bryan Kuan Wee Hoong claimed that Mr. Soosay made his request during a 30-minute conversation that took place three days earlier on July 23 to which he had been summoned by the general secretary.

Asked this week by the Malay Mail to confirm Mr. Soosay’s request, Mr. Kuan refused to comment. “I do not wish to speak about this,” Mr. Kuan said before hanging up the phone.

Mr. Kuan suggested in the video that it was not the first time that Mr. Soosay had made the request. "When it was confirmed PwC was going to do the investigation, I had a separate conversation with him (Soosay) and he told me clearly that anything related to him, don't give to them (PwC)," Mr. Kuan said.

Mr. Kuan quoted then AFC Director Member Associations Relations and Development James Johnson as telling him that Mr. Soosay had made a similar request to Mr. Johnson. Mr. Johnson has since left the Asian group to join FIFA. Mr. Johnson, who was at the time reportedly supervising the investigations, was not available for comment.

Mr. Kuan asserted in his statements that Mr. Soosay, concerned that he could be implicated in the Bin Hammam investigations, asked Mr. Kuan whether he believed that the AFC general secretary could be “blamed or has committed crimes or violated any laws based on the information that could be contained in the audit.” Mr. Kuan quoted Mr. Soosay as saying “protect me” and asking, “Can you tamper or hide any documents related to me?”

In his statements, Mr. Kuan said Mr. Soosay had not identified specific documents but that he had concluded from the conversation that the AFC general secretary was referring to documents that he had signed, particularly related to cash advances to Mr. Bin Hammam, a key element in the PwC’s audit.

In response to Mr. Kuan’s refusal to act on the request, Mr. Soosay said, according to Mr. Kuan: “I should have tampered or got rid of the documents before PwC conducted this audit.”

Mr. Kuan said that he had advised Mr. Soosay to “let them investigate. I think everybody understood the situation he (Soosay) was in. When Hammam was in AFC, everybody knew that if he asked you to do something, you had to do it."

The sources close to the AFC said Mr. Pride taped the video statement and took the written statement as a private investigator rather than in his capacity as a FIFA official. The statements were made, the sources said, for the record in case questions about Mr. Soosay’s alleged request or the documents were posed rather than as the basis for an investigation.

In his written declaration, Mr. Kuan said that “this statement made accurately by me sets out the evidence that I would be prepared, if necessary, to provide to a football governing body and court as a witness.”

The sources said that Mr. Kuan had discussed Mr. Soosay’s July 23 request with Mr. Johnson who, according to the video, was present during the recording of Mr. Kuan’s statement by Mr. Pride. Mr. Kuan said he made his written and video-taped statements on advice of Mr. Johnson.

Mr. Kuan said in his statements that he had rejected the request and had not tampered or hidden any documents. He said he told Mr. Soosay that it would be wrong to tamper with documents and would make the situation worse if they went missing.

Asked in the video why Mr. Soosay would want the documents tampered with or hidden, Mr. Kuan said: "I'm not sure ... possibly because he is afraid he may be accountable for signing the payment instruction and that he didn't question it." He added that "If suddenly it goes missing, then everybody's integrity will be questioned," Mr. Kuan asserted in the video days before he reported documents as missing that it was "quite impossible" for anyone to tamper or disappear documents from his office.

One of the sources said that Zhang Zhilong, the then acting AFC president, advised Mr. Pride within days of Mr. Kuan’s statements that documents had gone missing from the AFC

Asserting that the AFC could be held liable for the payments by the WSG shareholder, may have been used to launder money, and could have breached sanctions against Iran and North Korea, the PwC audit said that “our transaction review revealed that items sampled were, in most cases, authorised by the General Secretary or Deputy General Secretary and the Director of Finance. As signatories these parties hold accountability for the authorisation of these transactions.  We also note the Internal Audit and Finance Committees were aware of this practice,” the PwC report said.

In a letter to Mr. Soosay dated September 27, 2012, Mr. Bin Hammam’s lawyer, Eugene Gulland of law firm Covington & Burling LLP, asserted that the general secretary had a conflict of interest as a result of PwC’s findings and demanded that he excuse himself from any involvement in the investigation of Mr. Bin Hammam.

Mr. Gulland asserted further that Mr. Soosay had been intimately involved in the negotiation of the WSG contract as well as a broadcast agreement with Al Jazeera. “It appears that you failed to reveal (to PwC) the existence of the Ad Hoc Committees which negotiated these contracts (on which you sat) nor the numerous internal review meetings both before and after the conclusion of the contracts in which you were involved…. In these circumstances it should be abundantly clear that you were completely conflicted with respect to the matters presently under investigation,” Mr. Gulland wrote.

In response to Mr. Gulland’s demand, Mr. Zhilong accused the lawyer in a letter to AFC members dated October 17, 2012 of adopting “intimidatory tactics” in Mr. Bin Hammam’s battle to defeat charges of bribery, corruption and financial mismanagement. Sources close to the AFC said Mr. Jilong wrote the letter in response to a barrage of emails and other communications in which the Qatari national allegedly threatened and intimidated AFC executive committee members and staff.

Sources close to the AFC as well as the audit said the documents were also related to a separate investigation of Mr. Bin Hammam that was being conducted on behalf of FIFA by the Freeh Group International Solutions, LLC, a global integrity and risk compliance consultancy founded by former US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director Louis J. Freeh.

“All of this was related. It was a complicated period. Only a small circle within the AFC knew about it. The documents were all connected to investigations we were doing,” said one of the sources.

The leaking of Mr. Kuan’s statements came as AFC president Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa stood to be re-elected at an AFC congress on April 30 in his home country of Bahrain. Sheikh Salman, who is the only candidate in the election and will automatically also become FIFA vice president, was initially elected in 2013 to succeed Mr. Bin Hammam and expected to introduce reforms that would ensure proper governance of the AFC.

Instead, Sheikh Salman since taking office buried the PwC audit and moved to centralize power within the group in his hand. In doing so, Sheikh Salman reneged on promises to establish a committee to look into political interference in Asian soccer and to report within a month on the status of the PwC audit. The burying of the audit effectively precluded an investigation of Mr. Soosay after he was identified in the audit as having been one of three AFC executives who had authorized payments related to Mr. Bin Hammam that were being called into question by PwC.

 “The audit’s purpose was to deal with Bin Hammam. It served its purpose. It’s been buried,” said an AFC executive committee member, suggesting that establishing facts as the basis for reform had not been the group’s primary purpose in commissioning the audit.

Sheikh Salman last year persuaded the AFC to adopt a resolution that solidified his power base by automatically nominating the group’s president as FIFA vice president. The move meant that the Asian FIFA vice presidency would no longer be an elected position.

As a result, Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein of Jordan, who had been elected as FIFA vice president, would no longer be able to run for that office. A leading reformer in world soccer, Prince Ali is challenging FIFA President Sepp Blatter in the world soccer body’s presidential election scheduled to be held next month.

In an open letter last year to the Asian soccer community, Prince Ali charged that Sheikh Salman and “other AFC officials” were “driven purely by politics,” Prince Ali said it was “unfortunate” that the AFC was not focusing its “energies and valuable time to improving the game in Asia and addressing the myriad challenges that AFC faces in marketing, grassroots football, women’s football, transparency and accountability.”

Ironically, Mr. Soosay’s attempt to shield himself from the PwC audit leaked as Mr. Blatter in his weekly column in a FIFA magazine heaped praise on the Asian soccer body saying that “the AFC symbolises the importance of football as a school of life.” Sheikh Salman has promised that Asia would vote for Mr. Blatter in next month’s FIFA election.

The PwC audit concluded that Mr. Bin Hamman had used an AFC sundry account as his personal account. It also questioned a $1 billion master rights agreement with Singapore-based World Sports Group, which was negotiated by Mr. Bin Hammam.

The audit advised the AFC to seek legal counsel to ascertain whether the contract could be cancelled or renegotiated. It also suggested that the AFC solicit legal advice on potential civil or criminal charges against Mr. Bin Hammam. The PwC report constituted the basis for FIFA’s decision in late 2012 to ban the Qatari for life from involvement in professional soccer.

Mr. Kuan made on behalf of the AFC the first of three reports to the police that documents had been stolen from the AFC five days after recording and signing his statements, the Malaysian police told the Malay Mail.

In November 2012, the Malaysian public prosecutor dropped charges against Kong Lee Toong of involvement in the theft of documents from the AFC. Mr. Kong was the husband of Amelia Gan, who was AFC’s director of finance under Mr. Bin Hammam.  Ms. Gan has since joined Qatar Stars League as a club licensing and business planning officer.

The PwC report asserted that Ms. Gan starting in 2006 had managed the AFC account which Mr. Bin Hammam used “to facilitate personal transactions as if they were his personal bank accounts.” It also alleged that Ms. Gan was involved in negotiating AFC’s contract with WSG. “When the President (Bin Hammam) wished to facilitate a transaction from this account, he would instruct his Personal Assistant or Ms Gan, depending on the type of transaction,” the PwC report said. The report said Ms. Gan was aware of multiple unexplained payments made by Mr. Bin Hammam, including $20,000 to a purported FIFA lobbyist.

Mr. Kong surrendered himself to police in after Mr. Kuan reported the theft of the documents on July 31, according to sources close to the AFC and Agence France Presse. In that police report, Mr. Kuan stated that had he noticed that an “important document, which contained a bank report/statements belonging to former AFC president (Mohammad b Hammam), was missing from my office,” according to the sources. Mr. Kuan told the police that he and Mr. Johnson had last reviewed the document on July 13, 2012 and that “after that I kept the document back in a storage drawer” until he discovered that it was missing.

The sources said that the AFC within hours of reporting the missing documents received a letter from Mr. Bin Hammam’s Malaysian lawyers asserting that the group was responsible for the disappearance of documents related to what the lawyers described as "personal payments."

A second Malaysian police report dated August 11, according to the sources, quoted the AFC as reporting that AFC staffer Selina Lee Siew Choo, “had admitted taking the file (containing the documents) and said she had handed them to a male Chinese known as Tony, the husband of Ms Amelia Gan, who was the former (AFC) Finance Director. Selina had also admitted making a copy of a bank document advice for a transaction worth USD $2 million, which was a payment from ISE,” International Sports Group, the WSG shareholder. The payment referred to payments totalling $14 million into Mr. Bin Hammam’s AFC sundry account in advance of the signing of the company’s contract with the Asian soccer body.

A subsequent August 15 police report, the sources said, quoted an AFC official as saying that Ms. Choo on August 2 had “admitted stealing the file from the drawer in my office as instructed by Ms Amelia Gan (former finance director at AFC). Her instructions were to steal the file which showed the document/ bank advice containing the US$2 million transaction from ISE and surrender them to her husband, Tony Kong.”

The report quoted Mr. Kuan as saying that “I have my suspicions/reasons to believe that the theft of the file was to dispose evidence involving a case of wrongful management of AFC accounts by Mohammad Bin Hammam in the wake of a financial audit by PricewaterhouseCoopers.”

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-‐director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, a syndicated columnist, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog

Malay Mail: Explosive ‘tamper or hide’ AFC probe video surfaces / Soosay: Where’s this coming from, why now?

Explosive ‘tamper or hide’ AFC probe video surfaces

By Haresh Deol 

KUALA LUMPUR — The general secretary of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) allegedly attempted to "tamper or hide" documents during the 2012 internal audit that was triggered by claims of corrupt practices by then president Mohammad Hammam, reveals evidence obtained by Malay Mail.

A video recording of a Fifa investigation, obtained by Malay Mail this week, sheds new light on the episode and implicates Datuk Alex Soosay in an alleged cover-up.

Soosay vehemently denied the contents of the video, saying it was an attempt to smear him. The former Negri Sembilan footballer is in Bahrain for a series of meetings ahead of the AFC elections on April 30 (see accompanying story).

The explosive disclosures surfaced in the video recorded on July 26, 2012 in an interview with AFC financial director Bryan Kuan Wee Hoong by Fifa investigator Michael John Pride.

Kuan said Soosay had, during a meeting in his office three days earlier, spoken about the PriceWaterhouse Coopers (PwC) audit before allegedly requesting him to tamper or hide documents which could incriminate him.

He claimed Soosay said "protect me" before asking "can you tamper or hide any documents that relate to me?"

"He started by saying how are things going ... and then said things are under control. He explained the next steps by AFC and Fifa. He suddenly said 'protect me' and I was surprised," Kuan said in the video.

"He said based on (what) they (PwC) have found out, have 'I committed any crime and will they blame me for anything? Anything that you have … is it possible to either tamper or hide it somewhere?'

"As far as I understand (Soosay was talking about) things he had signed ... about the premium voucher, the instruction to initiate payment mainly possibly for cash advances taken by Hammam.

"I said let them investigate. I think everybody understood the situation he was in. When Hammam was in AFC, everybody knew if he asked you to do something, you had to do it." 
Kuan said he had received a similar request in the past.

"When it was confirmed PwC was going to do the investigation, I had a separate conversation with him (Soosay) and he told me clearly anything related to him, don't give to them (PwC)," Kuan said in the video.

Kuan said he was unable to tamper or hide documents as it would be wrong and would worsen the situation if documents went missing. Soosay apparently "took a short breath" and said "I should have tampered or not provided the documents before PwC conducted this audit".

Asked why Soosay would want the documents tampered with or hidden, Kuan said: "I'm not sure ... possibly because he is afraid he may be accountable for signing the payment instructions and that he didn't question it."

"If suddenly it (documents) goes missing, then everybody's integrity will be questioned," Kuan said, adding it was "quite impossible" for anyone to tamper or hide documents from his office.

On July 31 the same year, AFC lodged a police report claiming documents — bank reports and statements linked to Hammam — were missing from AFC House in Bukit Jalil. 

The missing documents related to a US$2 million (RM7.23 million) payment in 2008 by International Sports Event, one of three World Sport Group shareholders. The other two shareholders are Lagardere Unlimited and Dentsu.

Asked at the end of the recording if he was pressured to make the statement, Kuan said "no".

Kuan, however, refused to speak about the video when contacted on Wednesday. 

"I do not wish to speak about this," he told Malay Mail before hanging up.

Another former AFC staff member, James Johnson, who left for Fifa, was apparently present during the video recording.

It is learnt the video was never submitted to Fifa. In an email reply to Malay Mail, Fifa said: "We kindly suggest you to direct your enquiry to AFC."

Bukit Aman Commercial Crime Investigation Department confirmed Soosay had, in a police report on Aug 17, 2012, alleged Hammam had embezzled nearly US$10 million (RM36.17 million).

Its deputy director (operations and intelligence) Datuk Abdul Jalil Hassan said the case was classified as NFA (no further action). He declined to elaborate.

Former AFC financial director Amelia Gan and her husband Tony Kong Lee Toong were implicated in the theft of missing documents at AFC House. 

Kong claimed trial to a theft charge on Sept 19, 2012. On Nov 9, 2012, Kong's lawyer Kamarul Hisham Kamaruddin said prosecutors decided to drop the charge but he did not give any reasons.

Soosay: Where’s this coming from, why now?

KUALA LUMPUR — AFC general secretary Datuk Alex Soosay refuted allegations he had instructed any party to "tamper or hide documents" linked to him during the internal audit by PwC in 2012.

Soosay stressed investigations had been wrapped up and he was never hauled up by any party including Fifa to provide statements regarding the episode.

"Where is this coming from and why now?" Soosay asked, when told about the July 26, 2012 video recording between AFC financial director Bryan Kuan Wee Hoong and Fifa investigator Michael John Pride.

"If there was something, wouldn't they have investigated me? This is just a smear (campaign) against me. There is no such thing."

Soosay was in Dubai on Wednesday, awaiting his flight to Bahrain where he will attend a series of meetings ahead of the AFC elections on April 30. 

He added: "It is a non-issue. There is no evidence of any wrongdoing."

Asked if he had been under duress during Hammam's tenure as president, Soosay said: "Yes".

He said he had no issues with Kuan whose disclosures to Fifa alleged Soosay had asked him to tamper or hide crucial documents. 

"I appointed Kuan after we sacked Amelia Gan (former AFC financial director)."
Gan, and her husband Tony Kong Lee Toong, were implicated in the theft of missing documents at AFC House in Bukit Jalil on July 31, 2012.  

"This whole thing is being taken out of context. It is only to smear me. There were no cash advancements ... everything (was) documented.

"PwC has given their report, Fifa has investigated. Everything is settled and the case closed. There is no such thing," he added.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Israel chides club for racism in bid to fend off FIFA suspension

By James M. Dorsey

Israel’s Equal Employment Opportunities Commission (EEOC) has demanded that notoriously racist club Beitar Jerusalem, the bad boy of Israeli soccer, retract recent statements that it would maintain its policy of not hiring Palestinian players because of opposition by the team’s militant, racist fan base.

The demand comes as Israel is fighting an attempt by the Palestine Football Association (PFA) to get the Jewish state suspended from FIFA at next month’s congress of the world soccer body. The PFA charges that Israel hinders the development of Palestinian soccer by obstructing travel of Palestinian players between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as well as abroad.

Senior Israeli soccer officials are in Europe this week for talks with FIFA president Sepp Blatter, and Michel Platini, the head of the European soccer body UEFA, in a bid to block the PFA effort. They counter the Palestinian assertion by insisting that the Israel Football Association (IFA) has no say in Israeli security policy.

The PFA effort is part of a broader campaign by President Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestine Authority to pressure and isolate Israel following the failure of peace talks and last year’s Gaza war by joining multiple UN organizations, particularly the International Criminal Court (ICC). FIFA was the first international group to recognize Palestine as far back as 1998.

An Israeli law firm joined the Israeli-Palestinian battle in international organizations with a petition to the ICC to investigate PFA president General Jibril Rajoub on suspicion of war crimes during last year’s Gaza war.

It is hard to assume that the demand by the EEOC is at least not in part related to the battle over Israel’s status in FIFA given that the commission has not acted in the past against Beitar Jerusalem, the only top flight Israeli club to have not hired Palestinian players even though Palestinians rank among the country’s top performers. Beitar’s nationalist ideology is embedded in its name, a reference to the Jews’ last standing fortress in the second century Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans.

Similarly, the Israel Football Association, even though it is the only Middle Eastern soccer body to have an anti-racism program, has repeatedly slapped Beitar Jerusalem on the knuckles but has always stopped short of significantly raising the cost of the club’s persistent racism. Beitar, which has long enjoyed the support of Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and other prominent right-wing personalities, has the worst disciplinary record in Israel’s Premier League.

Beitar’s rabidly anti-Palestinian, anti-Muslim La Familia support group sparked rare national outrage in 2013 when it unfurled a banner asserting that “Beitar will always remain pure” in protest against the club’s brief hiring of two Muslim players from Chechnya. It was the group’s use of language associated with German National Socialism that sparked the outrage against its consistent racism.

Nonetheless, La Familia operates in an environment in which racism, racial superiority, bigotry, double standards and little sincere effort to address a key issue that undermines Israel’ s projection of itself as a democratic state founded on the ashes of discrimination , prejudice and genocide is one predominant story that emerges from the country’s soccer pitches.

Writing in Soccer & Society, Israeli football scholar Amir Ben-Porat warned that “the football stadium has become an arena for protest: political, ethnic, nationalism, etc… ‘Death to the Arabs’ has thus become common chant in football stadiums… Many Israelis consider the Israeli Arabs (Palestinians) to be ‘Conditional Strangers,’ that is temporary citizens… Contrary to conventional expectations, these fans are not unsophisticated rowdies, but middle-class political-ideological right-wingers, whose rejection of Arab football players on their team is based on a definite conception of Israel as a Jewish (Zionist) state,” Mr. Ben-Porat wrote.

Responding to Mr. Levi, IFA president Ofer Eini said "Levy's words are not appropriate and their racist scent certainly doesn't contribute to Israeli soccer and Israeli society. As a coach and an educator it would have been better had he avoided comments which can serve those who want to divide Israeli society." Mr. Eini did not include any potential punitive action against Beitar in his statement.

The EEOC and the IFA took issue with a statement in a radio interview by Beitar coach Guy Levi that “it doesn’t matter that this is the right time; it would create tension and cause much greater damage. I won’t find any player from the Arab sector who would want to. Even if there was a player who suited me professionally, I wouldn’t bring him, because it would create unnecessary tension.”

Mr. Levi said that opposition by La Familia, whom he praised, meant that he would not sign Israel international Bibras Natcho, a Circassian Muslim, as it would stir unrest among the club’s supporters. 

"My job is to coach the team, not to educate anyone," Mr. Levy said. Mr. Natcho, a CSKA Moscow midfielder asked Mr. Levy on Twitter: "What would happen if a European coach would have announced that he doesn't want a Jewish player on his team?"

EEOC commissioner Tziona Koenig-Yair asserted that Mr. Levi’s comments constituted “suspicion of racism in contravention of the law prohibiting discrimination based on nationality, among other things in acceptance to employment.”

Mr. Levi’s assertion that Palestinian players would not want to play for Beitar, presumably because the explicit racist provocation of, chants against, and attacks on Palestinians and Muslims by La Familia, was belied by Mohammed Ghadir, a Palestinian striker, who in 2011 said he wanted to play for Beitar but was rejected. "I am well suited to Beitar, and that team would fit me like a glove. I have no qualms about moving to play for them,” Mr. Ghadir said at the time. The EEOC and the IFA failed to step in.

In a commentary on Mr. Ghadir’s case, Ha’aretz columnist Yoav Borowitz noted that “an extraordinarily courageous Arab player has stood up, and fearlessly indicated that he is not afraid to play for Beitar. The Jerusalem squad did not assent to his request - not because he lacks sufficient talent, but because he is an Arab. This is a mark of Cain for Beitar Jerusalem and its fans, and also for the city of Jerusalem, the state of Israel and its legal system, the IFA and also for the media, which continues to cover this soccer team. Day by day, we reinforce and popularize this loathsome form of racism.”

Beitar was founded in 1936 by members of the Beitar movement established in 1923 in Latvia as part of the revanchist Zionist trend. Beitar’s founder, former Ukrainian war reporter Ze'ev Jabotinsky, hoped to imbue its members with a military spirit.

The club initially drew many of its players and fans from Irgun, an extreme nationalist, para-military Jewish underground that waged a violent campaign against the pre-state British mandate authorities. As a result, many of them were exiled to Eritrea in the 1940s. Many of La Familia’s members are supporters of Kach, the outlawed violent and racist party that was headed by assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane. La Familia frequently displays Kach’s symbols.

Beitar’s initial anthem reflected the club’s politics, glorifying a “guerrilla army racist and tough, an army that calls itself the supporters of Beitar.” That spirit still comes to life when fans of Beitar meets their team’s Palestinian rivals. Their support reaches a feverish pitch as they chant racist, anti-Arab songs and denounce the Prophet Mohammed.

Beitar’s matches often resemble a Middle Eastern battlefield. The club’s hard core fans -- Sephardi 
males of Middle Eastern and North African origin who defined their support as subversive and against the country’s Ashkenazi establishment -- revel in their status as bad boys. Their dislike of Ashkenazi Jews of East European extraction, rooted in resentment against social and economic discrimination, rivals their disdain for Palestinians.

The failure to seriously confront La Familia has entrenched Palestinian perceptions of an Israeli society that is inherently racist. Israeli Palestinian Member of Parliament Ahmed Tibi has laid the blame for La Familia’s excess at the doorstep of Israeli political and sports leaders. “For years, no one really tried to stop them, not the police, not the club, not the attorney-general and not the Israeli Football Association," he said.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-­‐director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, a syndicated columnist, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Egyptian death sentence for soccer fans puts president’s iron grip to the test

By James M. Dorsey

Egyptian-general-turned-president Abdel Fattah al Sisi’s iron grip on dissident is likely to be put to the test with the sentencing to death of 11 soccer fans for involvement in a politically loaded football brawl three years ago that left 74 militant supporters of storied Cairo club Al Ahli SC dead.

The brawl and the subsequent sentencing to death in an initial trial two years ago of 21 supporters of the Suez Canal city of Port Said’s Al Masri SC sparked mass protests by Al Ahli fans demanding justice in the walk up to the court hearings and a popular revolt in Port Said and other Suez Canal cities once the verdict was issued that forced then President Mohammed Morsi to declare an emergency and deploy military troops to the region.

Although the judge in the retrial ordered by an appeals court lowered the number of al Masri supporters facing a death penalty, the verdict is certain to spark renewed anger in Port Said where many see the fans as scapegoats in what was likely an effort that got out of hand by the military and security forces to punish the Al Ahli supporters for their key role in the 2011 popular revolt that toppled President Hosni Mubarak and subsequent mass protests against military rule.

The 11 fans are part of a group of 73 defendants that includes nine polices officers and three Al Masri executives charged with responsibility for the incident in which police and security forces stood by as the Al Ahli fans died in a stampede after their team’s match against Al Masri in a Port Said stadium whose gates had been locked from the outside. The court is expected to issue its final verdict on May 30.

Suspicion of some association of police and the military in the incident, the worst in Egyptian sporting history, was further fuelled by circumstantial evidence, including lax security in advance of the match, the signalling of a group of men armed with identical batons in the stadium, and threats exchanged on Twitter between Al Masri and Al Ahli fans in advance of the game.

Mr. Al Sisi’s brutal suppression of dissent since he toppled Mr. Morsi in a military coup in 2013 that has led to more than 1,400 deaths and the incarceration of thousands raises the stakes for protesters and could lead many in Port Said to think twice before taking to the streets. Supporters may also wait until Egypt’s grand mufti rules on the death sentences.

All death sentences in Egypt are referred to the mufti for his non-binding ratification. A decision by the mufti to reject the death sentences could lower temperatures in Port Said but spark anger among Al Ahli fans who celebrated when the initial court sentenced the 21 to death.

The initial indictment of the 73 served to effectively put the blame for the incident on Al Masri fans and evade a thorough investigation of potential involvement of security or military personnel despite the presence of nine local police officials among the defendants. The framing of the case in this fashion made it however impossible to achieve a verdict that would be perceived as equitable by all. The sentencing of the Al Masri fans was always going to leave Port Said unhappy while acquittal or the imposition of light sentences would have infuriated the thousands of supporters of Al Ahli.

The court verdict comes at a sensitive moment in Egyptian soccer politics. The death sentences came days after Egypt moved closer to banning as terrorist organizations militant soccer groups that form the backbone of opposition to Mr. Al Sisi’s autocratic rule with the arrest and pre-trial detention of five alleged members of the Ultras White Knights (UWK), the highly-politicized, street battle-hardened support group of Al Ahli arch rival Al Zamalek SC. The five men were arrested on charges of joining a “terrorist entity” and attempting to topple the regime of general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi.

The verdict also followed the start of a trial against 16 people, including UWK members, charged with violent acts, arson and rioting that led on February 8 to a stampede outside Cairo’s Air Defence Stadium in which 20 people were killed. The deaths are widely believed to have been the result not of UWK provocation but of violence by a police and security force that has no experience in crowd control and is notorious for its brutality.

Finally, the court issued the death sentences at a time that soccer fans are at the core of anti-government protests in universities that are controlled by security forces and popular neighbourhoods of Egyptian cities. Leaders of fan and student groups warn that the post-2011 generation is on the one hand more apathetic and on the other more hopeless and nihilistic than the one that participated four years ago in the popular revolt.

The crackdown on soccer fans at a time that league matches are played behind closed doors to pre-empt violence and prevent stadia from re-emerging as venues for the expression of dissent is certain to deepen a sense of frustration. “When the opportunity arises they (the new generation) will do something bigger than we ever did,” said a founder of the UWK who has since distanced himself from the group.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-­‐director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, a syndicated columnist, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Global Soccer’s Backslapping, Backstabbing Backroom Deal-making Politics

Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah

By James M. Dorsey

Presidential elections and tournament hosting in the world of soccer appear to be seldom won on the merits of a candidate or bidder’s proposition. Instead, the outcome of polls and bids are frequently the result of backslapping, backstabbing backroom politicking between global soccer managers and political leaders.

World soccer is about to get another taste of the global soccer’s wheeling and dealing with the likely election of Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, the head of the Association of National Committees (ANOC), the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) and the influential Solidarity Commission of the International Olympic Committee as an Asian member of world soccer body FIFA’s executive committee.

A Kuwaiti politician, former oil and information minister, and past head of the Organization of Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC) as well as his country’s National Security Council, Sheikh Ahmed is already being touted as a possible future president of FIFA in 2019. If successful Sheikh Ahmed would succeed FIFA president Sepp Blatter who is expected to win a fifth term in next month’s poll.

The president of the Asian Football Confederation, Sheikh Salman Bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa, who is a shoe-in for re-election with no opponent in an AFC presidential election at the end of this month thanks to Sheikh Ahmed’s support, has already paved the way for his Kuwaiti sponsor. Assured of his FIFA vice presidency that comes automatically with his virtually certain re-election as AFC president, Sheikh Salman has manipulated AFC election procedures to position Sheikh Ahmed.

The manipulation says much about the non-transparent political dealings in global soccer designed to not only maintain political control but also ensure that a closed circle of executives and politicians remain in power.

It comes as a book by two Sunday Times reporter scheduled for publication next week discloses Mr. Blatter’s deal with Qatar’s ruling family that ensured his re-election for a fourth term in 2011 in exchange for ensuring that Qatar would not be deprived of its right to host the 2022 World Cup irrespective of whether the Gulf state had violated FIFA bidding rules or not.

It also comes weeks after Sheikh Ahmed in a humiliating defeat in a power struggle within the Kuwaiti ruling family was forced to publicly apologize for accusing former prime minister Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah and former speaker Jassem Mohammad Abdul-Mohsen Al-Karafi of attempting to overthrow the government as well as money laundering and abuse of public funds. A court declared documents and video evidence put forward by Sheikh Ahmed to have been fabrications.

In an apology on Kuwait television addressed to the former officials as well as his uncle, the emir, Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah, and his uncle, Crown Prince Sheikh Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Sheikh Ahmed offered “my deep apologies and express my profound regrets for my recent prejudice, abuse and slander, intentional and unintentional, and which were based on the information and documents concerning the interests of the country that I had received.” He said he had believed that the information was credible and correct.

“As I seek pardon from Your Highness, I stress that what happened will be a lesson from which I will benefit and draw appropriate conclusions. I am in full compliance with the orders and directives of Your Highness and I promise to turn the page on this matter and not to raise it again,” Sheikh Ahmed said.

Humiliated at home, the incident is likely to blunt Sheikh Ahmed’s immediate political ambitions in Kuwait. However, that is not true for the world of global sports where he is already considered to be one its most powerful players. And Sheikh Salman is happy to lend a helping hand should Sheikh Ahmed wish to expand his empire after the Kuwaiti announced two months ago that he would be a candidate for one of three elected Asian seats on FIFA’s executive committee.

Sheikh Ahmed has opted to run for the two-year Asian vacancy rather than one of the two four-year openings on the FIFA board. That would allow him to be re-elected in 2017 and position him as a sitting FIFA executive committee member for the 2019 presidential election.

To ensure that Sheikh Ahmed’s strategy works, Sheikh Salman has agreed, according to veteran sports journalist Keir Radnedge, to manipulate the election in a way that Sheikh Ahmed is guaranteed a two-year rather than a four-year seat on the FIFA executive.

“The (normal) election procedure is sequential. The candidate with fewest votes drops out until only three FIFA-bound ‘survivors’ remain. Under current statutes the top two would take the four-year slots with the third-placed candidate taking up the two-year role. This uncertainty does not suit Sheikh Ahmad’s ambitions as he bounces back from a rare political setback at home,” Mr. Radnedge noted in World Soccer, assuming that under standing procedure Sheikh Ahmed would garner enough votes for a four-year seat

As a result, AFC at its congress at the end of this month in Sheikh Salman’s home country of Bahrain will vote on instructions of the AFC president separately for the four and two-year positions.

Mr. Radnedge noted that Sheikh Salman’s manipulation in favour of Sheikh Ahmed highlighted the fact that little had changed in AFC governance since the Bahraini official came to office in 2013 with a pledge to clean up the organization. Sheikh Salman was elected as the AFC was being rocked by a scandal that led to the banning for life from involvement in soccer of its former president, Mohammed Bin Hammam, on charges of financial abuse and mismanagement and question marks about the integrity of the awarding of a $1 billion contract to Singapore-based World Sports Group.

Since coming to office, Sheikh Salman has ensured that a damning audit of Mr. Bin Hammam’s management that contained far-reaching recommendations for further investigation and possible legal action was buried and that power was further concentrated in his hands at the expense of greater transparency and accountability.

“The manoeuvring illustrates that the AFC has made little progress since Bin Hammam was expelled from football for life by FIFA… In fact, no serious attempt has been made to resolve concerns over the controversial World Sports Group commercial contract and the disturbing complexities emanating from the Bin Hammam affair,” Mr. Radnedge said.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-­‐director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, a syndicated columnist, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Questions about Qatar’s World Cup hosting get renewed boost

By James M. Dorsey

A planned anti-Qatari protest ahead of a match between Chelsea and Manchester United, the first major fan demonstration against the 2022 World Cup host, and the imminent publication of a Sunday Times book documenting Qatari political interference in world soccer body FIFA’s 2011 presidential election that returned Sepp Blatter to office at the behest of the FIFA president casts a shadow over next month’s FIFA election and is likely to renew debate about the integrity of the Qatari bid.

The protest and the publication come as 79-year old Mr. Blatter is campaigning for a fifth term in an election at next month’s FIFA congress against three candidates, foremost among whom outgoing FIFA vice president Prince Ali bin Al Hussein, who are demanding reform of the scandal-ridden, secretive group.

It also comes against the backdrop of persistent criticism of Qatar’s controversial labour regime and allegations that migrant workers who constitute a majority of the Gulf state’s population toil under unacceptable working and living conditions on major infrastructure projects, including ones related to the World Cup.

The brunt of that criticism was until now expressed by human rights groups, trade unions and the International Labour Organization (ILO). Qatar has made lofty promises of reform but has yet to act on many of those promises, prompting suggestions that FIFA members could table a resolution at next month’s congress censoring the Gulf state, if not calling for it to be deprived of its hosting rights.

While many fans have been critical of the awarding of the tournament to Qatar and question the integrity of the Qatari bid that has been mired in controversy from day one, few have to date organized to pressure the Gulf state. That may change this weekend with a call by the Chelsea Supporters Trust and Playfair Qatar for a photo protest at Stamford Bridge in London in advance of Chelsea’s Premier League match against Manchester United in demand of improved welfare and rights of workers involved in World Cup-related infrastructure.

The Sunday Times book is likely to put to rest the fictional notion propagated by Mr. Blatter, his associates in the FIFA executive committee, and leaders of other sports associations that sports and politics are unrelated. It will further likely raise questions not only about Qatar’s World Cup bid but also its concerted effort to position itself as a global sports hub. Qatar, which still has ambitions to host an Olympic Games, is hosting 89 major sporting events in the coming year.

The book, The Ugly Game: The Qatari plot to buy the World Cup by Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert, counters Qatar’s defence of the integrity of its World Cup bid and raises questions about the banning of Mr. Bin Hammam despite few doubts about the uprightness of his actions and the transparency of FIFA presidential elections. It asserts, based on a cache of FIFA documents, including a large number of emails, as well as interviews that contrary to repeated Qatari claims disgraced and banned former FIFA vice president and Asian Football Confederation president Mohammed Bin Hammam was intimately involved in the Qatari bid.

In one of its most startling findings, the book asserts that Mr. Blatter concerned that Mr. Bin Hammam’s challenge of his presidency in the 2011 FIFA election posed a serious threat cut a deal days before the election with Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family under which Mr. Blatter would not question the Qatari bid in return for Mr. Bin Hammam’s withdrawal from the presidential race. The deal forced Mr. Bin Hammam to withdraw his candidacy amid allegations that he had bribed members of the Caribbean Football Union in a bid to ensure their support for his presidential bid. The Sunday Times said that Mr. Bin Hammam’s withdrawal statement had been draft by the Qatar 2022 organizing committee.

Mr. Blatter’s concern was prompted by Mr. Bin Hammam’s alleged ability to muster a majority of 14 votes in the FIFA executive committee’s December 2010 vote in favour of Qatar. Mr. Blatter was elected unopposed for a fourth term. Mr. Bin Hammam announced his surprise withdrawal despite the fact that an investigation of the Caribbean incident by the FIFA ethics committee had yet to reach a conclusion. Qatar’s interest was primarily in hosting the World Cup rather than have a controversial Qatari national become head of FIFA. The Sunday Times asserts that the deal was cut despite the paper having provided FIFA with evidence that called the integrity of the Qatari bid into question.

The book further documents Mr. Bin Hammam’s close involvement in the Qatari bid which raises further questions given the repeated Qatari denials and the multiple controversies surrounding the way the former executive conducted FIFA and AFC business. The Sunday Times asserted last year in reporting based on leaked documents that Mr. Bin Hammam had operated a number of slush funds that were employed to buy the support of FIFA member associations.

In a preview of the book, The Sunday Times reported earlier this month that a confidante of Mr. Bin Hammam had phoned the paper on behalf of the Qatari shortly after the disclosure of the slush funds to say: . “Bin Hammam brought the World Cup to Qatar. Bin Hammam and the bid were separate, but Bin Hammam was the coach of the Qatar bid. He brought the votes to Qatar. He was the one with the relationships . . . The rainmaker was Bin Hammam… Blatter didn’t vote for Qatar because he did not want to give Bin Hammam any more power. Then when they won he got a shock and from then on his one thought was to destroy Mohamed bin Hammam. He provoked a death penalty by collecting those 14 votes.”

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-­‐director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, a syndicated columnist, and the author of
The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Egypt moves closer to labelling soccer fans as terrorists

Source: Heba Khamis/AP

By James M. Dorsey

Egypt has moved closer to banning as terrorist organizations militant soccer groups that form the backbone of opposition to autocratic rule with the arrest and pre-trial detention of five alleged members of the Ultras White Knights (UWK), the highly-politicized, street battle-hardened support group of storied Cairo club Al Zamalek SC.

The five men - Sayed Ali, Seif Kamel, Mahmoud El-Domiati, Abdallah Ghoneim and Anas Tawfik – were arrested last week on charges of joining a “terrorist entity” and attempting to topple the regime of general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al Sisi.

The fans were first questioned by state security prosecutors on Monday and are scheduled to appear again before the prosecution on April 24, according to Daily News Egypt. The paper quoted Revolutionary Socialists, a left-wing group, as saying the five men were being held separately in different prisons.

The fans were detained on the basis of a law adopted earlier this year that defines any group “practicing or intending to advocate by any means to disturb public order or endanger the safety of the community and its interests or risk its security or harm national unity” as a terrorist entity.

The employment of the law against the fans follows two failed attempts by Mortada Mansour, the controversial president of Zamalek, to persuade the courts to ban the UWK as a terrorist organization. Mortada has accused the group of trying to assassinate him. The courts refused to rule on his petition asserting that they were not the competent authority.

It also follows the dispersal on Sunday of an anti-government protest near Cairo’s Tahrir Square, scene of the mass protests in 2011 that toppled President Hosni Mubarak and 2013 that paved the way for a military coup against President Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first and only democratically elected leader.

The demonstration was staged by Ultras Nahdawy, a group formed by UWK members and members of Ultras Ahlawy, the support group of Zamalek arch rival Al Ahli SC. Ultras Nahdawy is a driving force behind anti-government student protests in the past year on multiple Egyptian university campuses.

The protest was one of some ten flash demonstrations across Cairo, weekly incidents often led by soccer fans and students whose protests have largely been driven off campus by increased security force control of universities.

“We are looking for alternative outside the campus. We have managed to do so in neighbourhoods and smaller universities that are less controlled. We’re looking at new strategies and options given that the risk is becoming too high. We are absolutely concerned that if we fail things will turn violent. Going violent would give the regime the perfect excuse. We would lose all public empathy,” said Yusuf Salheen, a 22-‐year old leader of Students against the Coup. The group was formed after the brutal August 2013 crackdown staged by the Muslim Brotherhood in protest against the toppling of Mr. Morsi.

The group alongside Ultras Nahdawy with its 65,000 followers on Facebook has moved beyond its support for the Brotherhood to positioning itself as a defender of the ideals that fuelled the popular revolt in 2011. They see themselves as bulwarks against radicalization of a new generation prevalent among militant soccer fans who played a key role in the overthrow of Mr. Mubarak and subsequent anti-government protests that is apathetic, more nihilistic and has lost hope. New levels of repression by Mr. Al Sisi’s government that surpass the authoritarianism of Mr. Mubarak’s regime resulting in the death of more than 1,400 protests and the arrest of thousands in the last two years constitute a feeding ground for radicalization.

“This is a new generation. It’s a generation that can’t be controlled. They don’t read. They believe in action and experience. They have balls. When the opportunity arises they will do something bigger than we ever did,” said a founder of the UWK who has since distanced himself from the group.

The emergence of a new generation coupled with the recognition by soccer fans and students that Mr. Morsi’s government is history and cannot be restored has prompted them to focus on revival of the ideals of the 2011 revolt, sparking differences within the protest movement, particularly with those that join neighbourhood demonstrations at the spur of the moment.

“The people in the street protesting now fall into two simple categories - the first are over 30 and believe all this nonsense that Morsi is coming back to rule again, and that the coup will be defeated. The second group is under 30. We all realise that this is leading us to no victory, but we can’t stop. The numbers have sharply decreased. All of those still in the streets, I can swear that they have a (personal) vendetta with the regime, a relative who was killed or a relative detained in prison right now. My brother-in-law is in prison right now facing a sentence of 10 years, and I just can’t stop. I know that there is no point to what we are doing, but it is better than doing nothing,” a 20-year old law student in the Cairo neighbourhood of Matareya, an Islamist stronghold, told Middle East Eye.

The uphill battle of soccer fans and students for political change is hampered not only by the government’s relentless repression. It also is stymied by widespread apathy of an Egyptian public disillusioned by the failure of the 2011 revolt to bring reform, tired of political volatility, and desperate to see their country return to stability and trickle-down economic growth. These Egyptians may be less starry-eyed about Mr. Al Sisi’s ability to deliver but see no viable alternative.

“The protesters have nothing to offer. The government will crush them. Sisi is not perfect, but he’s all we have. What we need is stability to turn the economy around. If that means, putting people in jail, so be it,” said a shopkeeper in one of Cairo’s upmarket neighbourhoods.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, co-­‐director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, a syndicated columnist, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.