Asian body 'ready to bury Hammam era'

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Asia's football body finally looks ready to turn the page on an era of bribery allegations and intrigue by announcing moves to replace suspended president Mohamed bin Hammam, insiders said Friday.

A unanimous decision by the Asian Football Confederation's (AFC) executive committee to hold presidential elections next year demonstrates unusual unity, they said, in a body better known for in-fighting.

"Even his (bin Hammam's) ardent supporters said they wanted to go ahead... I was pretty surprised," a witness, who did not want to be named, told AFP. "It was the quickest item on the agenda."

Leadership elections, at a congress expected next April, would banish a long period of turmoil and uncertainty after bin Hammam was accused of bribery during FIFA's 2011 presidential vote and banned from football activities.

Hammam, 63, is already in his third and final allowable term as AFC president, under the body's rules, and remains temporarily suspended from football despite having his life ban overturned earlier this year.

But the Qatari businessman's long fight to clear his name appears to be wearing thin among the 46 member associations of the AFC, which is the biggest regional football body in the world.

"Everybody's fed up. I have spoken to all the member association presidents, they're all fed up," the witness said.

"I think these guys have seen the writing on the wall. They really want to put this behind them. They want to start a new chapter and look forward. It doesn't make sense to devote all this energy to one man."

Interim president Zhang Jilong of China is favourite to claim the post full-time, and he appeared to throw his hat in the ring when announcing the vote on Thursday.

"Under my caretaker leadership, I promised a new vision for AFC. I committed myself to a new era of transparency and I am confident that with your support I will be able to deliver this objective," Zhang said in a statement.

Stable leadership would be a boon for the AFC, which was dominated by Hammam during his nine-year rule before being thrown into turmoil by his suspension last year.

Peter Velappan, who was the AFC's general secretary for 30 years and is a vocal critic of the Qatari, was delighted the body had decided to move forward.

"The game is progressing very rapidly in Asia and we can't afford to lose any time with bickering over this kind of problems. I'm really happy that they will have a congress in April," he told AFP.

Bin Hammam has maintained a low profile but his web address, www.afcpresident.com, with the tagline "Tomorrow is another day!" suggests he hasn't given up his battle yet.

And with the AFC also awaiting final guidance from its legal committee before confirming the vote, the saga may still have some way to run.

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