Football: Asia at crossroads after bin Hammam ban

KUALA LUMPUR, July 24, 2011 (AFP) - Caretaker boss Zhang Jilong pledged to hold Asia's crisis-hit soccer body together Sunday after president Mohamed bin Hammam's life ban highlighted the sport's deep corruption problems.

Zhang admitted the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) was in a "difficult period" but he vowed strong and transparent leadership to address problems such as the match-fixing plague which is sweeping the region.

The former Chinese Football Association chief said bin Hammam's lifetime suspension, which was announced late on Saturday and leaves the regional body without an elected leader, was a "sad for day for AFC and Asian football".

Bin Hammam was kicked out of the sport by world body FIFA after being found guilty of using cash-stuffed envelopes to try to buy votes in his bid to topple powerful president Sepp Blatter.

The Qatari, a key supporter of his home country's successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup, later declared "war" on FIFA and hit back by posting a glowing 2008 letter from Blatter, a former close ally, on his website.

"This is only the battle, not the war," he warned.

Bin Hammam also told AFP he would lodge an appeal with FIFA. He previously said he was prepared to take his case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and, if necessary, the civil courts.

Zhang, bin Hammam's ex-deputy, could now be at the AFC's helm for a year before facing a presidential vote, unless the executive committee or a third of members call for an extraordinary congress earlier.

As well as uncertainty over its leadership, the AFC is also battling match-fixing and betting scandals in China, Malaysia and notably South Korea, where the wealthy K-League has been threatened with closure.

"This is a difficult period for us because Asian football is currently facing multiple challenges, the biggest of which is match-fixing," Zhang said in a statement.

"I, in my capacity as the acting AFC president, am aware of the urgent need to provide a strong leadership that will work closely with the member associations towards creating a climate of trust and confidence.

"During my provisional presidency, I promise that AFC will govern the continent's football affairs in complete transparency, fairness and harmony.

"The best of Asian football is yet to come and AFC will work tirelessly towards ensuring that the collective interests of the great sport we love will prevail in our continent. The future is indeed Asia but this can be realised only if we keep the faith in our football."

Zhang is thought likely to face a challenge for the leadership of the AFC, which contains powerful figures and various factions, including supporters of bin Hammam.

Ex-general secretary Peter Velappan, another one-time bin Hammam ally who later fell out with the Qatari, hailed his suspension by saying "justice is done".

"It is a fair decision. Justice is done. There is no better alternative," Velappan told AFP. "Now the whole world will know how Qatar won the hosting rights of the 2022 World Cup."

Football Federation Australia, whose move from Oceania to the AFC was overseen by bin Hammam, noted his suspension and intention to appeal, but did not make any other comment.

Despite its problems, Asian football is enjoying growing financial clout, as witnessed by China's Guangzhou Evergrande's $10 million signing of Argentine midfielder Dario Conca and ex-Liverpool great Robbie Fowler's move to Thailand.

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