The body which deals with the organisation and management of international competitions in Asia is the Asian Football Confederation, known as the AFC – Asia’s UEFA – whose origins date back to 1952 when, during the Olympic Games in Helsinki, football representatives from different countries in Asia met and discussed the need for a football organisation to govern all of the continent’s countries.
The AFC was then officially founded in Manila on 8 May 1954 – one month before the foundation of UEFA in Basel on 15 June 1954 – during a meeting chaired by, then representative of the Philippines, John Cleland, who was its vice president from 1954 to 1970. For 4 years there were various presidents, up to 1958, when the Prime Minister of the newly independent Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman, was elected among the first to understand the potential of football as a means to maintain social unity between cultures and religions. During his presidency, lasting 20 years, the number of members of the AFC increased constantly.
Tunku was also the promoter of the Pestabola Merdeka (literally Tournament of Independence) – a tournament organised annually (at least initially) to celebrate Malaysian independence – which took place at the Merdeka Stadium, built in Kuala Lumpur specifically for the country’s declaration of independence on 31 August 1957. The tournament was played regularly until 1988, but then started to be held less often.
In 1978, the successor to Tunku as president of the AFC was the president of the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM), Hamzah Abu Samah, who served until 1994, together with Peter Velappan as secretary general. The latter retired only in 2007. During their leadership people started to look at the great potential of Asia as a football market to be exploited, so AFC entered into partnership with AFC Marketing Ltd, a commercial body founded in 1992 in Hong Kong and responsible for the management of sponsors, marketing and merchandising, activities through which it was possible to accumulate funds to reinvest in the organisation of sports events in Asia.
In 1994 Hamzah was replaced by another president of the FAM, Sultan Ahmad Shah, followed then by Mohammed bin Hammam (from Qatar), the first AFC president from outside Malaysia. Under their leadership, the number of members continued to grow, embodied in the case of Australia which on 1 January 2006 left the OFC (Oceania Football Confederation) to join the AFC. Mohammed bin Hammam is also behind the launch of “Vision Asia 2003”, a development programme to expand Asian football.
The Vision Asia development programme, launched in September 2002 under the supervision of Mohammed bin Hammam and Peter Velappan, arose from the need for Asian countries to recognise the importance of football development in economic, social and cultural terms, and to eliminate the divide between Asian football and the rest of the world.
During the programme launch, Peter Velappan – Secretary General of the AFC – stated the importance of building a solid foundation for the development of Asian football, starting with the enhancement of the mechanisms to organise football, up to implementing the same footballing education for coaches, players and referees.
A very important factor for the Vision Asia plan is the emphasis placed on the development of youth football to lay down the basis upon which to build the Asian football of the future.
The subsequent president was the Chinese Zhang Jilong, leader of the AFC from 2007 to 2011. Under his presidency an important new AFC project was started, the Financial Assistance Programme, promoted as a counterpart to FIFA’s own Financial Assistance Programme, providing financial support to member states of the Confederation lacking the resources needed to develop the sport.
Currently, the AFC president is the Bahraini Salman Al-Khalifa, who has been serving since 2013. His main project is that of reuniting the Asian football community and promoting solidarity among players, clubs, leagues and members of the confederation. In addition, to safeguard and promote the game, with particular regard to Asian football fans, he started to firmly combat corruption within the game.
One Asia, One Goal
In 2016 the AFC launched its new campaign “One Asia One Goal” with the aim of helping Asian clubs achieve even more success internationally and, consequently, strengthen the participation of Asian fans in football on their own continent.
The campaign’s main objective is to eliminate the gap with the global football giants, in order to become one of the biggest federations in the world, in the future.