FIFA presidential candidate Sheikh Salman exclusive interview
By Kaveh Solhekol, Chief News Reporter, Sky Sports News HQ
Last Updated: 25/01/16 9:26am
Sepp Blatter's successor will be elected by FIFA's 209 member associations in Zurich on February 26 - and most FIFA insiders believe that Sheikh Salman of Bahrain is the favourite to become the new FIFA president.
As president of the Asian Football Confederation, Sheikh Salman can count on the votes of the vast majority of Asia's 46 FIFA members. He is also likely to be receive many of Africa's 54 votes.
Sheikh Salman is a lover of English football who has supported Manchester United for the past 30 years. Speaking to Sky Sports News HQ exclusively in Bahrain, he said he would love to see Sir Alex Ferguson join him on his board of FIFA advisers - if he becomes president.
He also spoke about his admiration for Richard Scudamore, the chief executive of the Premier League, and his hopes that England would soon be able to host the World Cup again.
Sheikh Salman has sympathy for Sepp Blatter and he believes Michel Platini would have been a great FIFA president.
He is confident that FIFA can change and he believes that other sports, such as athletics and tennis, have more serious problems to deal with than football.
Human rights groups have accused Sheik Salman of being involved in a crackdown on footballers who attended pro-democracy demonstrations in Bahrain in 2011. He says he is willing to meet those human rights activists to set the record straight. He guarantees "a million per cent" that footballers have never been mistreated in Bahrain.
Is your hands-off leadership style what FIFA really needs at this critical time?
Being a non-exec doesn't mean I won't be hands on. We have to make sure that we don't have someone who is going to micromanage the situation as before and then responsibility lies in the hand of one man so we have to make sure that there is proper structure. You have to delegate. You have to have proper structure. You have to appoint the right people.
You have said that you are a great admirer of the Premier League. Do you want FIFA to operate more like the Premier League?
We've seen how successful the Premier League and the Bundesliga are. The Premier League's revenue is even greater than FIFA. I like the way it is structured. The people there are doing a splendid job and this is what we want to bring [to FIFA]. These are two examples that we need to see and seek their advice.
If you are elected, you will need a secretary general. Would Richard Scudamore have the qualities required to be your secretary general?
Richard is a friend of mine and someone who has my trust. He's doing a great job but we have to choose someone who is ready to come in and ready to take that responsibility. I don't want to throw any names forward because it is a decision that will be taken by the executive committee as well. We have to consult with the stakeholders at FIFA and people who carry weight in the game. If Richard accepts that will be an honour for us, but there are a lot of other people at the same level. I will always seek his advice.
How long have you known Richard Scudamore for?
Three or four years. I've met him a few times. It's a relationship that people judge you on. He's a football figure and everyone appreciates the job he has done.
What do you make of what has happened at FIFA in the past 12 months?
It is a shock and it is saddening but we have to move on. We cannot call it a FIFA scandal. We have to be just and fair. Out of 400 plus employees in FIFA they are doing a great job. Football is continuing, the games and tournaments are going very well but what happened is something that is outside the responsibility of FIFA. Those cases have occurred in the Americas, then this is something that concerns them with some people who probably did some misconduct in their confederation which is outside FIFA jurisdiction. We have to be very fair on exactly what happened and come out and tell the truth.
So has it been blown out of proportion? Do tennis and athletics have much worse problems?
Individuals have committed wrongdoing. It's not the sport. We are reforming. Other sports are much much worse. They haven't been under the microscope like FIFA. People always use the slogan "FIFA scandal" but I don't think it is a FIFA scandal. You look at other sports - athletics, tennis, doping etc in all kinds of sports. I am sure there are cases which are much worse than what FIFA has.
Do you feel sorry for Sepp Blatter?
The person has put so much into football. I'm not saying there's no positive and no negative, he has put in so many programmes since he took office in 1998. He has done so many good things. Choosing the right time to go was a decision he should have taken more lately. There is so much positive he has contributed. We have to carry on the good work that has been done before but with a different approach. I have respect for him and his contribution to the game. Life has changed, we have to turn a page.
If you become president, will you stay in touch with Blatter?
He's a person I've known since 1998 but I don't know how legal issues are going to play out - I don't know if I will be able to talk to him. You can't just isolate someone just because he did something wrong. I don't think it's impossible that you can have a friendly conversation with him. He's a person I respected and respect and someone who did so much for this region.
If you become president, would you make Blatter honorary FIFA president?
I think the word if opens so many doors. I can't predict what will happen. It won't be just my decision. It will be team and board decision.
Are you open to doing deals with the other candidates? What about a deal so you become president and Gianni Infantino is your secretary general?
My relations with Europe are very close. If they want to sit and find a solution then why not? We cannot say no to anything. We will do support whatever is good for the organisation. I have worked with Gianni for the past few years. So far there's no agreement and no deal but let's see what happens in the next few days.
You backed Michel Platini for the FIFA presidency before he was forced out. Would he have been a good FIFA president?
His track record proves he did a great job at UEFA and no one can deny that. UEFA feels for him and the same here. I respect Michel as a friend and a colleague. That's why I jumped in and backed him as FIFA president. I'm sure he would have been a great president. We know him as a great player and a great administrator. His history speaks for itself.
Does Prince Ali owe you an apology for saying you made a blatant attempt to engineer a block vote by signing a memorandum of understanding with the Confederation of African Football?
He has his opinion but we have to be mature a bit on how we communicate. If you want to take on that seat [of FIFA president], you have to prove to everyone that you can be wise and choose your words wisely. Any confederation has the right to come out and declare their support for a candidate. I don't agree with his comments and I mentioned that in my reply in a very polite and respectful way.
What is response to reports that you were involved in crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators?
It is a purely politically motivated issue and it is never [about] football. There is no evidence whatsoever to back up those accusations. People are using me as a tool, unfortunately, for a cause. I think we should keep football as it is. If there are some political views regarding the government of Bahrain there are two different bodies that can handle with that. I've been elected in 2013 and 2015 and I've been through the integrity check but every time there is an election this story comes up and after that it will disappear as it did in the past.
Can you guarantee us that no footballers were ever mistreated or tortured in Bahrain?
I can guarantee that from my authorities as a football person. I'm not saying even a 100 per cent, I can tell you a million per cent. From a football official, we have never taken any decision with regard to any player in football or any other sport with matters that are not related to the sport itself. People dig but never look at the sports law in Bahrain. There is an article that states clearly that no one should get involved in politics and religious matters when we are involved in sport. These are very clear regulations which we follow.
Were you the chairman of a committee that met on 10 April 2011 to identify players who took part in demonstrations?
First of all we cannot be responsible for political issues. It never existed, it never even took office, it never even worked. It is against Bahrain law. Anybody you can talk to in football in Bahrain will tell you that we were never involved in those issues ever.
If you are president will you meet with human rights groups to answer their concerns?
I can understand that people have some issues about political matters but I think it should be addressed to the right body not to the people who are in football and in sport. But if I am elected president, or even now, if people want to discuss matters then they are most welcome, whether now or later, I have nothing to hide.
Can you tell us categorically that you have never been involved in running this country. You have only ever been involved in football?
Always, and there is an independent report that was done that says who was responsible. It never mentions sport, it never mentions my name, but then we have an election and because I am from the ruling family I have been used as a tool, I think this is not acceptable.
Turning to matters on the pitch, is it fair to describe you as a Manchester United supporter?
Absolutely, yes. I've supported them since 1985 or 1986.
Who have been your favourite Manchester United players?
Players like Ryan Giggs. He's only played for one team and he always performed at same level. Then there are player like Gary Neville and Paul Scholes - players from the academy who finished their careers at the club.
Do you get bored watching this United team?
Now, yes. It's not open and entertaining as before but we beat Liverpool so that is good. I've lost confidence lately. They're going through a transition. Others clubs are spending so much.
If you become president would you like to see people like Sir Alex Ferguson involved at FIFA?
Sir Alex has made a great contribution at UEFA. Personalities like this, who have given so much to the game, it is always nice to have their advice and have them around. We want to have an open-door policy.
Could people like Richard Scudamore and Alex Ferguson be on that board of advisers?
Absolutely. They have the experience and personality. Everyone respects them and the work that they have done but there are other people around the world who will have a similar contribution.
Will you be a friend of English football? Will the World Cup ever come back to England?
England has always been close to my heart for a number of reasons. The Premier League - I have been following English football since I fell in love with the game. I think the trust has to be built back. England has history in the game and has made a huge contribution. When you tell me about a World Cup that England would host, then, of course, yes. Everything is there, the fan base, the stadiums, the structure, the organisation. They have the most successful league in the world. The decision will be made by Congress and not just the executive committee. Now is the time to rebuild that trust. If I can play positive role, I will play that role. I hope England will have that chance.