Seoul: A divided Asian Football Confederation gathers for its annual awards ceremony in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday amid an increasingly toxic atmosphere, with suspended chief Mohamed bin Hammam calling those in charge puppets and claiming he has the support of most AFC national associations.
On Thursday, Asian football will laud its player, coach and team of 2012 but beyond the glitter and red carpet will be more intense political maneuvers, as the AFC's decision-making Executive Committee meets to discuss the bin Hammam imbroglio that has now dragged on for 18 months.
Bin Hammam, who took the post in 2002, was found guilty of vote-buying during his challenge against FIFA president Sepp Blatter in May 2011 and FIFA's Ethics Committee suspended him from all football activity for life.
After an appeal, the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned that ban in July. Bin Hammam, 63, was subsequently banned temporarily by both FIFA and AFC as allegations of financial irregularities during his nine-year tenure are investigated by the world governing body.
The Qatari has repeatedly denied all charges, claiming that there are forces at work both in Asia and elsewhere out to get him.
"I believe (my suspension) causes huge damage to the AFC," bin Hammam told Associated Press by email. "The AFC is no longer its own master. It is now controlled partly by FIFA and partly by the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA).
"Unfortunately, there are those who are currently in power and decision-making positions in AFC who are no more than puppets and blind followers of either FIFA or the OCA. These people believe that FIFA and the OCA are going to either put them in a more powerful position or consolidate their current position."
Zhang Jilong, a Chinese executive, took the role of acting president of the AFC following bin Hammam's suspension. Zhang had remained tight-lipped about his suspended predecessor for much of his 18 months in the job but broke that silence in October when he accused the Qatari and his lawyer of using intimidating tactics against former colleagues.
"Their plan is intimidate and create technical legal issues and objections in the hope that the more serious allegations of secret commissions, bribery, corruption and other wrong-doings are never exposed to the light of day," Zhang wrote in a letter to AFC member associations.
Bin Hammam believes however that he has the support of the majority.
"I will say that in the whole of Asia, I can identify only around five to six member associations and officials who are actively working against me. Particularly I will not accuse the Chinese FA of any attempts to damage my reputation or that they are part of group of people who are responsible for what I am going through today.
"I do not believe that other federations, other than Japan in the East, are playing any role in this scheme to remove me. The majority of the member associations are either with me or have sympathy for me."
James Dorsey, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, argues that Thursday's meetings will be crucial in determining the AFC's future.
"Bin Hammam certainly continues to wield significant influence within the AFC and indeed enjoys considerable support," said Dorsey.
"Whether that support constitutes a majority of associations will be clear at this week's AFC Executive Committee. A decision to delay acting on an internal audit that questions bin Hammam's management of the AFC and suggests looking at legal action would mean that his support in the group is sufficient to enforce his will. The opposite would mean that his considerable support is not enough to stop the group from acting against him."
Bin Hammam has insisted in private that he is not interested in returning to his former post and is interested only in clearing his name.
When the situation is finally resolved, an election for a permanent president will be held. Zhang is expected to stand.
"A number of bin Hammam opponents see Zhang as the man who will be able to heal wounds in a post-bin Hammam era," said Dorsey. "Although he was head of the finance committee under Bin Hammam, Zhang has sided with the reformers within AFC . he is betting on the fact that bin Hammam will ultimately lose his battle or that even if achieves some measure of victory he is too damaged to return as head of the AFC."
Rivals from the western side of Asia would include Yousuf Al Serkel, president of the United Arab Emirates FA, and his Bahraini counterpart Sheikh Salman of Bahrain. A west versus east election, often a source of division in Asian football, could further increase tension levels.
"Each time during the elections, I see this east-west tension rearing its ugly head,"said bin Hammam. "Both sides are guilty of acting in a foul manner, encouraging this East-West tension so that they themselves gain during the election. This is very unfortunate as when this happens, we as members of the football family are allowing outsiders to take advantage of us.
"Throughout my career at the AFC, I have ignored the political side and focused completely 100% on the development of the game and fair play."