The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has found the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), of which Australia is a member, guilty of discrimination against female candidates; guilty of third-party interference in violation of AFC and FIFA statutes; and guilty of a denial of justice.
The case was brought by a female candidate running in the AFC’s 2019 elections for a seat on the executive committee and the chance to be nominated to the council of world governing body FIFA.
The findings of another failure in sports governance centres on two key people:
- Mariyam Mohamed, a former Maldivian footballer and coach, who had nominated for one of five seats designated for women on the AFC’s 25-member executive committee with the potential to also be elected as the sole female member from the region to sit on FIFA’s council.
- World sport powerbroker Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah, known in sports circles as the “King maker”.
Sheikh Ahmad is currently an IOC member, although the Olympic website lists him as “self suspended”. He also remains the president of the Olympic Council of Asia and was a former FIFA executive committee member but resigned his football posts after he was implicated in a US federal court trial, part of a long-running investigation into bribery and money laundering in international football.
Later this month he will face trial in Geneva for forgery in a separate matter.
He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing in either case.
In her evidence, Ms Mohamed said that two days before the AFC’s elections, she was told by an official from her country that she had been called to a meeting in a private room of a hotel across the road from where the election would take place.
When she arrived, she said she was greeted by numerous people, including Sheikh Ahmad, who she says told her to withdraw her nomination or she would never work in football again.
As an incentive to withdraw from the election she was told she would be offered another job at either the AFC or FIFA, behaviour described by CAS as a “mixture of bribes and threats”.
She declined the offer.
“I strongly condemn any and all efforts in sidelining women who are outspoken,” Ms Mohamed told The Ticket.
Shortly after the election, which she lost, Ms Mohamed asked the AFC to investigate the incident.
Although it was referred to the AFC’s disciplinary and ethics committee, months went by with no resolution, so she took her case to the CAS.
Australian lawyer Mark Mangan of Dechert LLP in Singapore, said Ms Mohamed was completely vindicated by the CAS panel.
“She deserves enormous credit to come forward, to withstand the pressure that she was subjected to, to pursue her complaints to the AFC and then two appeals before CAS,” he said.
“She did so at the risk of being sidelined from Asian football administration but also the administration of Maldivian football.”
Since raising her complaints, the Football Association of the Maldives (FAM) — where she was a former head of women’s football — have stopped including her in any activities and shut off all correspondence with her.
Despite the CAS findings, there have been no repercussions for anyone at the AFC, including those who witnessed the encounter and attempted bribery of Ms Mohamed.
CAS stopped short of ordering the election results be annulled despite the panel establishing third-party interference.
They found “it did not, in the end, have an effect on the elections” because “Mariyam Mohamed did not withdraw her candidature” and the power to annul the election lies with the AFC itself.
Without a full investigation into the 2019 AFC election it is not possible to determine whether others may have been offered similar “incentives” and accepted them.
Despite that, Mr Mangan said the result was significant and could be used by others across the sporting spectrum.
“The fact that no woman has ever, as I understand it in AFC elections, stood for election in a ‘non-female’ seat indicates that all those women thought they were not entitled to stand for election in those other seats.”
Statutes governing FIFA and the AFC prohibit gender discrimination.
The CAS found the AFC uses quotas for female representation as “a cap” rather than “a minimum” thereby failing “to fulfil its obligation to promote the full participation of women in the 2019 AFC elections”.
“What’s particularly egregious about this is that the AFC have been told about this problem as early as 2016 … no changes were made,” Mr Mangan said.
FIFA says women’s football a top priority
FIFA president Gianni Infantino has stated previously that “women’s football is a top priority” for the governing body.
More than $1 billion has been committed to be invested in the women’s game over the next four years.
There is a commitment in Australia too, as joint hosts with New Zealand of the FIFA 2023 Women’s World Cup — the position of chief executive of the organising committee has been advertised just this week.
In part, Australia and New Zealand were selected as hosts because of the opportunity to expand the women’s game throughout the Asia-Pacific region.
FIFA’s bid evaluation document ahead of the vote to select the 2023 World Cup hosts stated that “giving women’s football the importance and the respect it deserves” is of “paramount” importance to the current FIFA administration.
“It is a moral priority as much as an institutional one,” the document read.
Statements such as these appear hollow given Ms Mohamed’s experiences.
Athletes are compelled to accept CAS findings, so why is it not the same when decisions go against those who govern sport?
“I feel overwhelmed, grateful, humble, I am happy CAS recognised the undue influence in the election,” she said.
“Will AFC take the CAS ruling into consideration and do their part in righting the wrong? It’s yet to [be seen].
“This [the election] was my next step to find a platform to fight against discrimination.”
‘This is not the time to be silent’
Ms Mohamed was asked how she found the strength to refuse the bribe offered in such an intimidatory environment.
“I wouldn’t do it, I wouldn’t do it for anything,” she said.
“Women continue to suffer discrimination and bias globally, if we do not come together as sports persons to fight gender discrimination and corruption, women’s football will continue to be sidelined and I cannot stand for that.
“I understand that this is not the first time that it has happened and it’s not going to be an easy fight.
“It hasn’t been so far, fighting against corruption as a single woman, but I must continue this fight to give hope for women in all walks of sport.
“This is not just my fight. This is every woman’s fight in sports.
“I alone can’t do this and there are so many people who are experienced and have the background and can support me in this cause and I wish to see them.
“That’s my prayer today.”
A FIFA spokesman said: “We understand AFC is reviewing the terms of the CAS award and so FIFA will now follow any further developments.”
Football Australia (FA) chairman Chris Nikou, a member of AFC’s executive committee, was not available for interview with an FA spokesman saying “this is an AFC matter”.
A request from The Ticket to speak to the AFC’s general secretary was met this from the organisation’s spokesperson: