‘Asian football is full of talent'

“My goal is to see Asia and its teams take their rightful place in the pantheon of world football. India — with its big population, powerful economy, and rich history of football — has a big role to play in the realisation of this dream,” says Mohammed bin Hammam in this email interview to Ayon Sengupta.

Undisputed king of Asian football since his elevation to the post of AFC President in 2002, Mohammed bin Hammam also doubles up as the chairman of FIFA's enterprising Goal project. With a mission to spread the game in his continent, the Qatari has set his heart on making Asia dominate the global sport. Seen as a plausible rival to current FIFA supremo Sepp Blatter in the coming years, Bin Hammam, for now, keeps away from the arc-lights and talks about the World Cup in South Africa and his lofty plans for the development of the sport in the Asian continent.

Question: World Cup 2010 in South Africa. Experts dread this, for many say it's not a safe place to stage an event of this magnitude and significance. What's your take?

Answer: I completely disagree with such pessimistic and cynical views floated by these so-called experts. South Africa has promised a safe World Cup. They are making tremendous efforts to ensure that this World Cup is remembered for all the right reasons. And I am confident that this World Cup will be a resounding success.

Do you think security would be an issue during the World Cup?

Security is an issue in all events of this magnitude, no matter where they are held — Europe, Asia or Africa. That is why FIFA pays special attention to security matters to ensure a safe World Cup for the teams, officials and fans.

Barring South Korea and Japan, and to some extent China, Asia seems to lack teams capable of taking on the big guns on the world stage. Why is the development of football so slow in the continent? And what is AFC doing to fast track development of the game in the continent?

If you look back at the past decade, football development all over Asia has picked up pace. The hidden potential of Asian football is now being slowly unleashed. People all over the world are sitting up and taking notice of it. AFC has succeeded in instilling a sense of confidence among its Member Associations. We have made them aware of their great potential, which can be realised by adopting professional and modern football practices. Asia has a large population, passionate interest for the sport, television coverage, powerful economies and a history and tradition of football. We have everything that is needed to revolutionise the game's fortunes in our continent. On its part, AFC has initiated a series of programmes and courses — Vision Asia, Project Future, etc — to help Asian football shed its amateur image.

Do you think Asia's representation in the World Cup should increase considering the size of the continent?

Asia currently has 4.5 spots. World Cup spots are given on the basis of a confederation's footballing strength. If Asian teams prove with their performance that the continent deserves more spots, I am sure it can be considered.

And what's your take on the move to introduce Australia in the Asian zone. Hasn't that robbed an Asian nation the opportunity to play in the World Cup?

Australia is part of AFC since 2006. As far as football is concerned, it is part of Asia. So the question of taking away an Asian team's chance doesn't arise. Besides, all teams qualify for the World Cup on the basis of their football merits. Australia has done the same by clearing a tough group stage.

What do you think are the chances of World Cup returning to Asia in 2022?

There are many advantages if Qatar gets to host the World Cup. All the group matches can be played in venues which are within reasonable distance of each other. So one can watch more than one group match the same day. Secondly, Qatar will be representing the wishes and hopes of the Middle East. The Middle East also has the legitimate right to seek peace through football and an event like the World Cup can bring peace in the region. But the first priority is to bring the World Cup to Asia. Who gets it is secondary. AFC has 46 Member Associations and we are representing their interests. Korea is there in the fray and I can understand why it wants to host the World Cup alone now after co-hosting it with Japan in 2002. The government and KFA are fully behind the bid. Hosting the World Cup is the right of all nations and Korea too has expressed a very legitimate wish. (Australia, England, Japan, Netherlands and Belgium, Russia, Spain and Portugal, and United States are bidding to host the 2018 or 2022 World Cups with Qatar and South Korea currently in the running to host only the latter tournament. FIFA will announce the hosts of both tournaments in December.)

How active is the AFC Champions League? Nothing much is heard about it.

The AFC Champions League is very active and is Asia's premier club competition. It was revamped on professional lines in 2009 and the re-launched version is proving to be very successful. Now, only those clubs which meet the stringent set of criteria are allowed to play in the AFC Champions League. This year's group stage attendance has already crossed the one million-mark. Television figures have also soared and it is now much more widely reported by the media than it earlier was. Today, the leagues and clubs in East Asia have a following in the West and vice-versa. This is because of the AFC Champions League, which is spreading its reach around the continent and introducing new clubs to new audiences.

How far do you think clubs in the continent are following AFC's strict professionalism norms?

The number of clubs that are convinced about the benefits of professionalism is increasing by the day. AFC has made it a requirement for all clubs who wish to take part in the AFC Champions League from 2013 onwards to adhere to the club licensing regulations. It is our hope that clubs outside of the AFC Champions League fold would also endeavour to meet the requirements. The club licensing concept is an initiative to ensure clubs that take part in international events are run professionally. Asian clubs are now realising that AFC's drive towards professionalism has a lot of benefits. But the desire for change needs to come from the clubs themselves. We cannot force any club to embrace professionalism if they don't want to. This is especially true of Indian clubs, some of which have a great history of football but are resisting change.

How excited are you about the next Asia Cup in 2011 and what should we be looking forward to?

I am very excited about the AFC Asian Cup Qatar 2011. I can confidently state that this will be the best edition of the competition, which started in 1956. We will have 16 of the best teams in Asia — including India — battling it out for a truly international title. Fans should be looking forward to a month-long festival of football, full of non-stop action, in the pleasant environment of Qatar.

Both the AFC and FIFA have invested heavily in Indian football. Do you think the results have been fruitful so far?

The results will not be instantaneous. One needs to be patient. AFC and FIFA are only now getting seriously involved with Indian football. The AIFF has a new President, who is very enthusiastic about developing the sport. AFC has already set up a committee to make Indian football professional and is working closely with FIFA (Win in India with India). I believe that if Indian football takes off, it will have a ripple effect on the entire continent. This is what we are aiming for.

Have you noticed any malpractices in the implementation process and in what areas things can be improved?

I have not seen any malpractices so far. AFC and FIFA have stringent evaluation methods to ensure that what is agreed upon is implemented. We care about the game.

Tell us something about the Vision Asia project and its goal?

Vision Asia is a unique programme that is tailor-made to suit a country's football development needs for both amateurs and professionals. It is already working wonders in those countries where it is being implemented seriously. Vision Asia is a holistic plan to transform Asian football from the gifted yet amateur state it is in now into a modern and professional avatar. Only strong and professional leagues will help to build the base for competitive national teams.

What's your ultimate goal for Asian football and where do you see India's position in it?

Asian football is full of talent and promise and its potential is unlimited. It can become a true superpower in football. My goal is to see Asia and its teams take their rightful place in the pantheon of world football. India — with its big population, powerful economy, and rich history of football — has a big role to play in the realisation of this dream.