Asian Olympic chief quits FIFA role amid bribery claims

ZURICH: World sport powerbroker Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah announced his resignation from the FIFA council on Sunday after being drawn into the latest bribery scandal to hit the game’s governing body.

Aside from serving on FIFA’s top body, the Kuwaiti runs the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), heads the influential Association of National Olympic Committees (ANOC) and holds other senior sport administration posts, including with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).

Sheikh Ahmad said Sunday in a statement he will withdraw from a May 8 election in Bahrain for the FIFA seat representing Asia while “strongly” denying any wrongdoing.

His comments came after US Court documents made reference to a Kuwaiti OCA official as being involved in the bribery case of FIFA’s audit and compliance committee member, Richard Lai.

Lai, also president of the Guam Football Association (GFA), pleaded guilty on Thursday to wire fraud conspiracy charges before US District Judge Pamela Chen in Brooklyn, according to US prosecutors, who said he had taken close to $1 million in bribes.

“With regards to alleged illegal payments to Richard Lai, I can only refer to my previous statement and vigorously deny any wrongdoing,” Sheikh Ahmad said in a statement released by the OCA on Sunday.

“I intend to work with all relevant authorities to disprove these for me totally surprising allegations.

“However, I do not want these allegations to create divisions or distract attention from the upcoming AFC and FIFA Congresses.

“Therefore, after careful consideration, I have decided it is in the best interests of FIFA and the AFC (Asian Football Confederation), for me to withdraw my candidacy for the FIFA Council and resign from my current football positions.”

FIFA President Gianni Infantino said he had “taken note” of the sheikh’s move, adding in a brief statement that “I want to thank him for taking this decision which certainly was not easy to take but is in the best interest for FIFA”.

The FIFA Council replaced the largely discredited Executive Committee as FIFA’s decision-making body under reforms instituted in the wake of the 2015 corruption scandal. The AFC will elect four members, one a woman, to the FIFA Council at the May congress.

Sheikh Ahmad resigned his candidacy ahead of a FIFA panel deciding whether to remove him on ethical grounds.

The FIFA Review Committee, which rules on the integrity of people seeking senior FIFA positions, has been studying the sheikh’s candidacy since the allegations emerged.

The FIFA ethics committee is making a separate assessment of whether to provisionally suspend the sheikh, a long-time leader of Kuwait’s football federation who was elected to FIFA’s ruling committee in 2015.

Resigning from his football positions does not necessarily put Sheikh Ahmad out of reach of FIFA ethics prosecutors and judges if any action was taken.

According to a statement from the Eastern District of New York of the US Attorney’s office, Lai, who is also a US national, pleaded guilty to receiving bribes from what the statement called “a faction of football officials in the AFC region”.

Lai helped “officials in that faction identify other officials in the AFC to whom they should offer bribes. The goal of this scheme was for the faction to gain control of the AFC and influence FIFA,” said the statement.

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