Wednesday, February 24, 2016

A Huge Wasted Opportunity for Oceania Football

Whatever the outcome of this week's FIFA Presidential election, the last few months (i.e. the official campaign) represents a huge wasted opportunity for Oceania Football.

As the deadline for nominations approached and there was no sign that anyone from the Oceania region would be nominated, I wrote to a number of the heads of the Oceania member associations (basically all those that were English-speaking and had a working e-mail address on their websites) suggesting a number of reasons why they should consider nominating a presidential candidate, and a listing a swathe of ideas for policies that would be of interest to Oceania and possibly not raised by any of the other candidates during the campaign period.

The following day I received a very positive response from the President of one of these member associations who also noted he would discuss the idea with the other countries' heads.

Around this time the expected candidate list included at least one from each of the other five Confederations: Michel Platini and Jerome Champagne from UEFA, Prince Ali from AFC, Tokyo Sexwale from CAF, David Nakhid from CONCACAF and Zico from CONMEBOL. I felt the OFC were in danger of being left out of the discussion and marginalising themselves.

After two weeks of hearing nothing, I recontacted the same people. Shortly thereafter, I received a brief, unenthusiastic e-mail from the Oceania Secretary-General, pretty much telling me, though in less colourful terms, to STFU.

That it was the Secretary-General who conveyed this news to me was a reminder that the Confederations seem to think they have the power and right to take decisions regarding Congress matters on behalf of their member associations.

As I have stated over and over again, nominating candidates for the Presidential election and voting during the election is the right of the 209 Congess members. Confederations have no nomination or voting rights.

In addition, FIFA Statutes specifically state that member associations are required to conduct their affairs without any interference from third parties. And yet here we are now in a situation where there is a fear that voters will feel compelled to take photos of their ballot papers to prove they voted for the candidate that their Confederations are backing. Third party interference is rife.

But back to Oceania.

In all likelihood, few, if any, of the five presidential candidates will be aware of the numerous ways in which Oceania is a unique Confederation.

1. Oceania is the only Confederation without an automatic men's World Cup Finals spot.

This is a big bone of contention from many within the region. Oceania has eleven members, one more than CONMEBOL which has anywhere from four to six World Cup Finals spots depending on which country is hosting and the results of play-off matches.

Personally, rather than give Oceania an automatic spot, which would benefit a single country (usually New Zealand) for a few weeks once every four years, I would rather see Oceania's World Cup Qualifying combined with Asia's, which could greatly benefit six or seven Oceania countries over a long period every four years.

No doubt, part of the reason for #1 above is:

2. Oceania is the only Confederation without any nation currently sitting in the top 150 of the men's FIFA Rankings. 

Because of the way the FIFA Rankings points are calculated, this means a win against New Zealand is worth the same as a win against Tonga.

A large part of the reason for Oceania countries being so lowly ranked is:
3. Oceania is the only Confederation where almost every year, none of the international teams play the five matches necessary to earn maximum ranking points.

In 2015 none of the OFC nations played five matches that could count towards FIFA Rankings points. Many of them played none. New Zealand only played three away friendlies against Asian opposition.

This is a record even worse than in the five previous years.

2014: 10/11 OFC nations played fewer than 5 matches.
2013: 9/11 OFC nations played fewer than 5 matches
2012: 7/11 OFC nations played fewer than 5 matches (4 teams involved in World Cup Qualifying third phase)
2011: 3/11 OFC nations played fewer than 5 matches (8 teams involved in combined OFC Nations Cup/World Cup Qualifying)
2010: 10/11 OFC nations played fewer than 5 matches.

In addition:
4. Only one OFC nation 'regularly' plays opponents from other Confederations.

The last matches against non-OFC opposition for each OFC nation:

Fiji 2 India 1 (August 14, 2005)

Vanuatu 4 Guam 1 (September 3, 2011 (South Pacific Games)) - before that, never.

New Caledonia 16 St Pierre & Miquelon 1 (September 28, 2012 (French Territories Cup)) - not a FIFA member

Uruguay 8 Tahiti 0 (June 22, 2013 (Confederations Cup)) - before that tournament the last time they played a FIFA member from outside the Pacific was Tahiti 0 Mexico 1 (September 2, 1980).

Papua New Guinea 1 China 1 (September 18, 1985).

Solomon Islands have never played a match against any non-Pacific team. Nor have Samoa, American Samoa, Cook Islands or Tonga.

#3 and #4 provide ample evidence for why I think OFC members could greatly benefit from the increased number of matches and variety of opponents a combined Asia-Oceania World Cup Qualifying competition would provide.

Another reason for the limited number of matches and opponents is:
5. Oceania is the only Confederation where every member has to fly to every away match.

There are no shared borders in Oceania, and the distances between nations is surprisingly big. The Pacific is truly a vast ocean. Flying from Auckland to Sydney (Australia, now part of the AFC) which many people in the world believe to be a short hop, skip and jump is 2159 km.

For the purposes of comparison:

London to St Petersburg (2114 km)
Baltimore to Havana (1878 km)

Tahiti's closest neighbour is the Cook Islands, a flight of 1142 km.
But to fly to the other French territory in Oceania, New Caledonia, is a flight of 4630 km (plus crossing the dateline).

The lack of population (every other Confederation contains at least one country with a larger population than the combined Oceania population) means there are few flights and those flights are very expensive. Given the limited funds available for football in general, it is no surprise that member associations can't afford to spend a lot on international football. Even getting the team together can be a logistical nightmare with players living on different islands

6. Oceania is the only Confederation without a professional league.

Since Australia left for Asia, the top-rated league in Oceania is the eight-team, fourteen-round New Zealand Football Championship. Like the MLS in the United States and A-League in Australia, it is franchise-based with no promotion or relegation. None of the players are professionals.

This means that the better New Zealand players end up scattered around the world in various leagues (Winston Reid (West Ham), Chris Wood (Leeds), Tommy Smith (Ipswich) and Rory Fallon (Bristol Rovers) in England, Michael Boxall (SuperSport United) in South Africa, Ryan Thomas (PEC Zwolle) in the Netherlands, Stefan Marinovic (Unterhaching) in Germany, Themi Tzimopoulos (PAS Giannina) in Greece, others in the United States, others in the A-League.

Organising matches is therefore extremely difficult and expensive, wherever those matches are played.

7. Oceania is the only Confederation with only one professional team, that is forced to play its domestic football in another Confederation.

Despite Auckland City's heroics in various editions of the Club World Cup, Wellington Phoenix is the only professional team in Oceania. The Phoenix play in Australia's A-League and provide the only way into professional football for anyone living in the Confederation, unless they are willing/able to move elsewhere in the world.

This is why it was so vital that the they retained their A-League franchise licence. The new ten-year licence was announced this past week after much indecision. It was a great day for football in New Zealand.

The Phoenix have also provided the opportunity for players from other OFC nations, such as Fiji's Roy Krishna and Benjamin Totori of the Solomon Islands to experience life in professional football.

8. Oceania is the only Confederation where the winners of every women's international tournament are known before the tournament is played.

Whereas in men's football, New Zealand are only slightly ahead of nations such as New Caledonia, Tahiti, Fiji, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, in women's football, New Zealand wins every single match against their Oceania opponents at all levels by convincing margins.

In last months' U-17 Qualifying competition in the Cook Islands, New Zealand beat Samoa 11-0, New Caledonia 12-0, Tonga 13-0, Fiji 11-0 and Papua New Guinea in the final by 'only' 8-0.

Five matches played, 55 goals scored, none conceded.

In last years' U-20 Qualifying competition, it was even worse. New Zealand beat Tonga 15-0, New Caledonia 26-0, Vanuatu 18-0 and Samoa 10-0. Four matches played, 69 goals scored, none conceded.

In last month's Olympic qualifiers, Papua New Guinea emerged from the minor nations to contest a two-game play-off against New Zealand. New Zealand won the first game in Port Moresby 7-1, effectively killing the tie. The final nail in the coffin was the failure of the PNG federation to apply for visas for the return match, resulting in New Zealand progressing by walkover.

Without considerable investment in women's football across the Confederation, it is hard to see how any of the other countries can start to challenge New Zealand. As a result, New Zealand's women's team will continue to have to make expensive trips outside the region to be able to play meaningful matches.

#9: Oceania is the only Confederation that could never host the World Cup Finals.

Where would the matches be played? Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin have the stadia for smaller matches, but no other cities in the entire confederation have large enough grounds.

As a result, Oceania will have to be content with holding youth World Cups and the keenly awaited upcoming Women's World Cup in Papua New Guinea, while never having the advantage of a bonus entry in the World Cup Finals via the hosting nation.

#10: Oceania is the only Confederation that still has a large number of independent nations that aren't FIFA members.

Can you think of a fully independent nation recognised by the United Nations that isn't a FIFA member? Difficult, isn't it?

And yet there are actually six in Oceania.

In addition to the seven independent nations (Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa), two French territories (New Caledonia and Tahiti), one American territory (American Samoa) and one island country in free association with New Zealand (Cook Islands), there are also six nations that aren't members of FIFA (Kiribati, Tuvalu, Nauru, Federated States of Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Palau).

Of these, Tuvalu, Kiribati and Federated States of Micronesia have shown some interest in being more involved in international football competitions. Requests they have made to FIFA in the past for assistance have reportedly fallen on deaf ears.

During the 2014 World Cup in Brazil we were subjected to numerous banners proclaiming FIFA Is For All, If that is true rather than just a clever acronym, FIFA should assist any of these six nations which wish to become members.

Of the five presidential candidates, only Jerome Champagne has noted he would like to ncrease FIFA membership, without mentioning Oceania specifically. However, it is hard to imagine where else he would look.

In Conclusion

Having someone from Oceania in the FIFA Presidential race, even without any expectation of that person winning the election, would have been a great opportunity to raise some of these points, make the other candidates aware of the major issues facing the region and maybe for some potential solutions to be discussed.

Instead, as I feared, Oceania's needs have been forgotten. None of Oceania's unique problems have been addressed.

And for that, sadly, Oceania Football only has itself to blame.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

What Shaikh Salman Didn't Say

This whole furore over Shaikh Salman's possible involvement in the alleged arrest and torture of Bahraini national team players during the Pearl Revolution of 2011 leaves an awful lot of important questions unanswered.

There is no doubt that torture did take place as a result of the uprising, as admitted by Bahrain's Minister of Cabinet Affairs, Kamal Ahmad, in this BBC newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman.

The list of torture methods outlined by Paxman is shocking, yet there is no denial from the Khalifa Government's representative, so in my opinion it is fair to assume that torture was systemic (and probably still is). I have no reason to doubt that those citizens brave enough to protest against the minority government of the royal family, which has ruled Bahrain since 1783, underwent some quite horrific human rights abuses, whether or not they were athletes who had previously represented their country at international level. To be clear, Shaikh Salman was the President of the Bahrain Football Association at the time these events are alleged to have occurred, and he is member of the royal family that permitted (if not encouraged) these abuses to take place.

I personally found it suspicious that when these allegations first came to light, Salman's initial response was not to deny them categorically and condemn torture, but instead to ask for proof. Perhaps I've watched too many police dramas on TV, but my impression is that when people are guilty, their first line of defence is to say, "You can't prove it."

Just one question! If I had been accused of being complicit in human rights abuses and was entirely innocent, I would refute the allegations in the strongest possible terms while simultaneously expressing my absolute opposition to torture.

I also find it interesting that Salman's response in this October 2015 BBC interview with Richard Conway was, "It's not just damaging me, it's damaging the people and the country. These are false, nasty lies that have been repeated again and again in the past and the present."

Was he saying that the torture didn't take place, or that it did take place but he personally wasn't involved? In my opinion his argument that the "false, nasty lies" are damaging the people and the country, would suggest that he was trying to argue the former, when we already know that Kamal Ahmad didn't deny torture did take place. Whether that torture was committed against athletes or not seems to be a moot point. Surely torture against any citizen is far more damaging to the country and the people than reporting that it has occurred is.

If Shaikh Salman was arguing that torture did occur but he personally wasn't involved, that doesn't seem any less damaging to the people and the country than if he had been involved.

It is disappointing to me that he has never made any statement, at least that I am aware of, decrying torture or condemning the actions of the Bahrain government that arrested and killed Bahraini citizens who were seemingly carrying out peaceful protests.

At 14:23 in the Richard Conway interview video, Salman deliberately interrupts Conway to make a point of raising the issue of the infamous alleged Committee that he was rumoured to have led, mocking the suggestion that such a Committee would exist. And yet we are aware that such a Committee was suggested, because as reported in The Guardian, it says so on the Official Bahrain News Agency website, so its existence doesn't seem so unlikely.

After this information came to light, Salman admitted in this Fox Sports report that despite his earlier denials, there actually was such a Committee, but argued, "This is a committee that's been asked to look (at events) within the sports law, not the civil law ... but never met because it cannot look into responsibility beyond its restriction.''

If that was true, why not come clean in the interview with Richard Conway and state outright that the government  formed a Committee with him as Chairman but it never met because doing so would be illegal, instead of trying to pretend that the mere suggestion of such a committee existing would be ridiculous?

(In passing,  I also find it interesting that in this interview Salman claims to be a relative newcomer, with only two years involvement with FIFA, unlike some of the others who have been involved for over a decade, but later in the interview, when asked about the human rights abuses, and perhaps when he thinks a long association with FIFA would be of benefit to him, he mentions he's been involved with FIFA tournaments for thirteen years.)

This Daily Mail article by Nick Harris for The Mail on Sunday goes even further:
The statement said the committee had convened the previous day in a meeting chaired by Sheik Salman. He now denies it ever met. Sources close to him say legal advice was that the committee should not proceed.
A statement from Sheik Salman said: 'While it was 0proposed (sic) that Sheik Salman lead a fact-finding committee, that committee was never formally established and never conducted any business whatsoever. Sheik Salman had nothing to do with that proposal and played no part in any sanctions taken against any individuals in 2011.'
Again what I find most striking, other than the obvious contradiction between the official government statement saying that the Committee had met, and Salman's outright denial that it had, is that instead of taking the opportunity to condemn the very idea of Bahrain's citizens being tortured for protesting, it suggests that Salman's only reason for not taking part was because of legal advice. It leaves me with the impression that he would have been happy to be involved if he thought it were legal to do so.

The last sentence of the quote above also seemingly admits that sanctions were indeed taken against individuals in 2011.

There are also issues raised by the reported relegation of two clubs by the Bahrain Football Association, as reported in The Guardian. In case there is any doubt as to whether this happened, here's the 2010-11 Bahrain league table as displayed on the Bet365 website:

As can be seen, two clubs, Al Shabbab and Malkia, have records indicating they played zero games. Al Shabbab had finished seventh the previous season and Malkia ninth, after which they won a play-off to retain their place in the top division. So this relegation was imposed for reasons unrelated to performance on the field.

Was the punishment imposed by the Bahrain Football Association? If so, why? There has been no reason supplied that I can find, despite transparency being one of the values that Shaikh Salman includes numerous times in his FIFA election manifesto.

Here's one such example from Page 3:

So where is the transparency about the relegation of two clubs from Bahrain's top division in 2011 for reasons other than performance on the field?

Perhaps Shaikh Salman might argue that these clubs were relegated as the result of decisions made by someone other than the Bahrain Football Association (i.e. the Bahrain Government) and that therefore he couldn't legally intervene. But such an argument would be very problematic for the Bahrain Football Association, because it would surely constitute third party interference in football which under FIFA Statutes must necessarily result in suspension from FIFA, just as has occurred recently with Kuwait under the leadership of Shaikh Salman's close ally, Shaikh Ahmad.

There is some history worth noting with Malkia, which is a small Shia fishing village on the outskirts of Manama. In 2007 there were widespread protests after a member of the ruling Khalifa family seized some local coastline potentially threatening the local fishermen's livelihoods. The reportedly peaceful protests were met with truncheons, tear gas and rubber bullets.

And then there is the extremely troubling evidence of the Bahrain international players who never again played for their country. The six players to suffer this fate reportedly included the Jubail brothers, A'ala and Mohammed, who at 31 and 29 respectively, were hardly too old to keep being key members of the national team. This article in the Kyiv Post is well worth reading, in my opinion, along with this from The National based in the United Arab Emirates..

To make matters worse for Bahrain, after falling at the last hurdle to Trinidad & Tobago in 2006 World Cup Qualifying and New Zealand in 2010 World Cup Qualifying, their performances under Peter Taylor in 2014 World Cup Qualifying were worse than expected, no doubt partly because of the loss of key players for unexplained reasons and partly because, as explained in this Al Jazeera article:

I'm surprised the poor state of Bahrain's national team and domestic league under Shaikh Salman's regime hasn't been raised before by any of the numerous Shaik Salman critics out there.

So to summarise, we first had allegations that Shaikh Salman was involved in illegal arrest, detainment and torture of Bahraini footballers as the leader of a committee that identified athletes involved in the Pearl Revolution protests.

This was followed by Salamn asking for proof that he was involved.

When further pressed he called the allegations nasty lies, yet when interviewed, Bahraini Cabinet Affairs Minister, Kamal Ahmad, made no attempt to refute the allegations of torture and seemed to confirm them.

Salman also seemed to go out of his way to mock the idea that an identification Committee would be set up with him in charge.

However the Bahrain Official News Agency's own website then provided evidence that such a committee was at least planned and Salman was the intended leader.

At this point, Salman admitted that the Committee did exist but said it never met, not because it would be outrageous and unethical to have such a committee, but because it would be illegal.

There are further reports in various newspapers that the committee did actually meet.

We know two teams were relegated from Bahrain's top division for reasons other than their performance on the field, but because of a lack of transparency, we don't know what the reasons are or whether the punishment was imposed by the Bahrain Football Association or the Khalifa Government, which would clearly constitute illegal government interference in football affairs.

We know that there are plenty of websites that contain articles in which some of the players say they were arrested, detained and tortured.

We know that a number of players who had previously appeared for the national team suddenly stopped being selected.

We know that Salman seemingly did nothing to protect these players.

We know that soon after this Bahrain's national football team started performing less well than it had in the preceding years.

And still Shaikh Salman sticks to his version of the events. And still as far as I can ascertain, he has not yet condemned what happened to athletes in Bahrain's jails in 2011.

I'm not telling you what to think about Shaikh Salman and whether or not he, as a member of a family that has for the past 233 years ruled Bahrain, a country with numerous alleged human rights violations made by multiple different human rights watch groups, would be a suitable candidate to be FIFA President.

But I've made my mind up.