Tick a box, pick a candidate to represent Asian soccer on the world stage. You'd think it would be clean and simple.

Not so at the Asian Football Confederation.

Even with just 46 voters and two candidates to choose from, it still made a hash of an election that culminated in a ballot last week to fill an Asian seat on the powerful executive committee of FIFA, which for better or worse oversees the most popular sport on the planet.

Among the important decisions pending on the committee's agenda is one next year on selecting hosts for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

Never underestimate soccer administrators' uncanny talent for messing things up. These people, too often, have proved to be whizzes at casting themselves in the worst possible light, at injecting their own personal rivalries into a sport founded on teamwork, at bickering over the mounds of cash in football and the power that it brings, and for appearing underhanded even when they insist they are strictly adhering to their own rules.

Vote-buying allegations, mudslinging, dirty tricks _ the Asian election had it all.

Judging from how freely the venom flowed during the campaign there's more House of Borgia than "Little House on the Prairie" in what FIFA president Sepp Blatter sometimes calls his "football family."

The bitterness got so out of hand that Blatter intervened with an appeal for "fair play and ethics" _ which, given the controversies that have marked elections at FIFA, including his own, is a bit like China's autocratic Communist Party tut-tutting Florida for its recounts in the U.S. presidential election of 2000.

Who can forget _ perhaps forgive is a better word _ FIFA's vote in 2000 that gave the 2006 World Cup to Germany. South Africa likely would have won had the beleaguered soccer boss of Oceania, the late Charles Dempsey, not crumbled under the pressure of what he said were threats from "influential European interests." Rather than make enemies by voting, he felt compelled to abstain.

Soccer, frankly, deserves better.

The catfight in Asia between Mohamed Bin Hammam and Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa for the FIFA post was high drama but hardly an encouraging sign that the sport is in the best possible hands. It reflects poorly on soccer that some of its senior administrators, such as FIFA vice president Chung Mong-joon, see nothing wrong with laundering their squabbles so publicly. On the eve of last Friday's vote, the wealthy scion of South Korea's Hyundai conglomerate accused Hammam of "acting like the head of a crime organization."

"It looks like Mr. Hammam is suffering from mental problems," said Chung, who backed Hammam's rival, Salman, for the post. "I want to advise him to consider going to hospital."

Hammam was equally undiplomatic. "This man knows nothing about football," he said of Chung.


And this is the so-called "beautiful" game?

In the end, Hammam won the vote, by the narrowest possible margin _ 23 to 21. Two ballots were spoiled _ but by whom or why, no one seems to know.

The confederation's communications director, Sean Tohidi, says voting delegates _ one from each of the 46 Asian associations that make up the AFC _ were repeatedly and clearly briefed on how to tick the box for their candidate of choice. Yet one still managed to tick two boxes; the other put scratch marks on both names.

FIFA monitors validated the outcome, and Salman didn't contest it.

"These were clearly honest mistakes," Tohidi says of the invalid ballots.


Or did the two voters simply resent having to take sides? Were they protesting how Asian football has been held hostage by all of this?

"We have taken a step back with all this petty quarreling," says Peter Velappan, the AFC's secretary-general from 1978-2007 who came out strongly against Hammam. "I told Blatter that I was in a state of shock about what has happened to Asian football."

It's not as if the world's most populous region doesn't have other, genuine questions to deal with, foremost of which is why the sport still underperforms on the world stage.

Countries such as Japan, South Korea and Australia are doing fine, but what about India or China? The Chinese Super League has been so woeful that even the country's main state-run TV network, CCTV, stopped broadcasting matches last season. Match-fixing and illegal gambling are other blights on Asian games.

But Blatter was all blinkers after AFC president Hammam _ the two men's ties go back years _ was re-elected to the FIFA post. Rather than interpret Hammam's razor-thin victory as a sign of a region deeply divided, Blatter declared: "I like close votes as it shows that football's democratic system is working."

"Asian football is in safe hands," he said.

If only we could be so sure.


John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester@ap.org