AS NEWLY installed FAS president Lim Kia Tong and his team set about rebuilding Singapore football, it is a good time as any to put in place a system that shields the administration from corruption that has infected the game globally.
A case in point has hit too close to home.
On Friday, a day before the Football Association of Singapore elections, the Asian Football Confederation suspended executive committee member Richard Lai of Guam from football. Two days later on Sunday, the AFC delegate to the FIFA executive committee, Kuwait’s Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, quit his post.
Lai pleaded guilty in a New York Court last Thursday to receiving US$100,000 in exchange for a vote and support in the 2011 FIFA presidential elections. He also admitted “receiving over US$850,000 between 2009 and 2014 from a faction of football officials in the AFC region”.
Ahmad Al-Fahad has been linked to Lai’s bribery case because U.S. Court documents made reference to his involvement. The Kuwaiti, who is also president of the Olympic Council of Asia, was a powerbroker in Fifa and the Asian Football Confederation. He was influential in the successful election of Bahrain’s Sheikh Salman Al-Khalifa as AFC president in 2013 and 2015.
The AFC was first mired in controversy when its previous president, Mohamed bin Hammam of Qatar, was banned for life on charges of offering bribes for votes before the same 2011 FIFA presidential elections. He had stood against incumbent Sepp Blatter and a London Sunday Times expose two years ago accused him of digging into AFC coffers to fund his bribes.
The episode hinted of a larger cancer that was already widespread.
Investigations in the United States led to the arrests and indictment of several key Fifa figures two days before Blatter won re-election in May 2015. They were accused of receiving US$150 million in relation to the 2018 and 2022 World Cup bids.
Blatter was not implicated, but four months later Swiss authorities charged him with paying Uefa president Michel Platini a ‘disloyal payment’ of £1.35 million in 2011. Fifa banned both men from football for six years.
What has all this got to do with Lim Kia Tong and his executive committee so early in their term?
The bribery scandals in 2011 and 2015 may not be related, but they reveal a deep-seated culture of corruption that is comfortably at home in football’s corridors of power. Most of the 2015 FIFA cases involved confederations in the Americas, and those guilty were convicted that same year.
This is why the AFC case involving Lai is unsettling.
It raises questions because it comes six years after the 2011 Fifa election and only came to light because Lai is an American and president of the FA in Guam, a United States territory in the Western Pacific.
So, who else in Salman Al-Khalifa’s executive committee elected two years ago and listed here — AFC officials — may be complicit and yet to be found out? Is the Asean Football Federation, which, like the AFC, is headquartered in Selangor, connected to shenanigans with the Asian body?
The FAS cannot detach itself from regional and continental football organisations, lest it gets banned from international competitions. But as we have discovered that although the FAS repeatedly boasts to be among the three best- governed NSAs in Singapore, lapses like the $500,000 donation to the AFF can happen.
FAS president Lim and his team have their work cut out. They have to put in place a more robust system of checks and balances, but not one that stifles its appointees and employees from performing their duties freely and without fear.
The solution, of course, is to put men and women of integrity in positions where they are empowered to make decisions for the FAS.
But for a sport that generates more than US$700 billion a year globally, and potentially tens or even hundreds of millions locally — not including football betting — temptation can sway even the most honest among us.
There is no easy answer on how to combat corruption, but there must also be an early detection system, one based on trust that when something goes wrong, the FAS can hold its head up high.