Sheikh Salman re-elected as AFC president, Infantino pushes Fifa agenda

Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa has been re-elected as president of the Asian Football Confederation, with Fifa counterpart Gianni Infantino using the AFC Congress in Kuala Lumpur as a means to further press home his ambitions for the 2022 World Cup and an expanded Club World Cup.

The re-election of Sheikh Salman was the main item on the agenda as the Congress drew to a close on Saturday, but was a formality after the Bahrain official was confirmed as running unopposed last month.

Saud Abdul Aziz al-Mohannadi, vice-president of the Qatar Football Association (QFA), had been in the running for the AFC presidency, but in a statement issued on March 28 pledged his support to Sheikh Salman. A third candidate, Mohamed Khalfan Al Romaithi of the United Arab Emirates, withdrew his candidacy earlier in the month.

Sheikh Salman will now serve a second four-year term, running from 2019 to 2023, ensuring he continues as the longest-serving president of any major football body. Also a senior vice-president of Fifa, Sheikh Salman has driven through the expansion of the Asian Cup national team tournament to 24 teams, while in October the AFC signed off on a lucrative eight-year global commercial rights deal with DDMC Fortis, from 2021 to 2028.

The AFC president was absent from the Congress following the death of his mother. In his absence, newly-elected Fifa Council member Praful Patel, addressing delegates on behalf of the president, said: “The hard work begins now. We have great foundations on which to build the future of our game in Asia, but the last four years have shown that success will only come through commitment.

“In Asia and, particularly here at the AFC, we have built a positive reputation and image in the last six years. It has been an honour to serve as your president for the last six years and now I am looking to continue our work together. As I have said many times – this is Asia’s time.”

Infantino was present in Kuala Lumpur as he continues efforts to build support for his plans for Qatar 2022 and the Club World Cup. Infantino is seeking to expand the next edition of the World Cup by 16 teams to 48. Such a move would require Qatar to share its hosting rights with neighbouring countries, with a Fifa Council meeting on June 3 set to further address the matter.

Infantino said on Saturday: “Sharing the games with a few of the neighbouring countries is of course an option to make it a true World Cup for the world and for the whole Gulf region. This is something to discuss, something to think about, and something that we are working on together with Qatar and together with all of you.”

Expansion would require the backing of Qatar, and Qatar 2022 chief executive Nasser Al-Khater told the AFP news agency that the main focus of local organisers remains on a 32-team tournament. “There’s a feasibility study on the countries that could possibly host. So together with Fifa we’re looking into those possibilities,” Al-Khater said. “So that’s where we are now. It’s still open as an idea but it’s not a done deal for it to be a 48-team World Cup.”

Expansion would be complicated further by the delicate political situation in the region at present. Qatar remains under a diplomatic and transport blockade from some of its Gulf neighbours, which accuse it of supporting terrorism, an accusation Qatar strongly denies. Given the current situation, Al-Khater said there is no chance the UAE or Saudi Arabia would co-host games.

“Under the current environment I don’t think it’s a possibility,” he said, adding that studies are being conducted about the feasibility of Oman and Kuwait hosting games. “We’ve got to take into consideration the capabilities as they stand today but also what could be done over the next three years.”

Infantino also touched on his plans for the Club World Cup. Fifa last month voted to approve plans to launch a revamped, 24-team competition in June 2021, despite opposition from Europe’s leading clubs.

“I witnessed the final of the Asian Champions League in Tehran and there are clubs of great tradition in Asia and it’s important we foster them and it’s important we give them the possibility to shine on the world stage,” the Fifa president said, according to the Reuters news agency.

“That’s why it’s important to continue to develop our competitions, for example, with the new Club World Cup.”