SINGAPORE (Reuters) - The Asian Football Confederation heads to the polls on Thursday to finally elect a new leader, but with question marks over the candidates and only a two-year term for the winner, hopes for reform at the crisis-hit body may have to be put on hold.
United Arab Emirates football chief Yousuf Al Serkal, Saudi Arabian Hafez Al Medlej, Thailand's Worawi Makudi and Sheikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al-Khalifa of Bahrain are running to succeed disgraced former president Mohamed Bin Hammam, banned from football for life by FIFA for bribery in 2011.
The AFC has been in limbo ever since with lengthy appeals by the Qatari proving unsuccessful, while Zhang Jilong's interim leadership has been beset by numerous matchfixing and graft scandals among member associations.
Should Al Serkal or Al Medlej win the vote in Kuala Lumpur their attempts to bring about reform could be hampered by their lack of a voice at FIFA. The fourth AFC seat, reserved for the president, on the world governing body's all-powerful executive committee cannot be taken up again until 2015.
Worawi is the only candidate who already holds a FIFA 'exco' seat having retained his position at the top table of world football for another four years in 2011.
Sheikh Salman has opted to enter a separate vote for a FIFA executive seat and runs against Qatar 2022 World Cup organiser Hassan Al Thawadi to replace Zhang.
"How can we have a president who cannot have our voice in FIFA?" asked the Bahraini in an interview with Reuters earlier this month.
"To have a candidate running for just one post and not another I regard as a compromise, a weak position just to accept what they can get."
Sheikh Salman looks to be favourite to claim a winning majority from the 47 member associations and has talked about bringing greater transparency to the AFC, but his critics have raised questions about the crackdown of a pro-democracy uprising at home in 2011.
Two human rights groups called on FIFA President Sepp Blatter to remove the 46-year-old Manchester United-supporting member of the Bahraini royal family from the election, saying local players, referees and administrators were tortured for their part in the uprising.
Sheikh Salman denied the claims, and the accusations have not prevented the head of the influential Olympic Council of Asia, Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, from backing his campaign.
That move has been criticised by Al Serkal, who says the OCA have been 'meddling in the vote'.
Al Serkal has promised to declare all benefits and expenses he accrues as president should he win the vote in a transparency campaign that has offered the most detailed pledges of the quartet.
Al Serkal and Sheikh Salman have both tipped themselves for victory but with the duo likely to split the vote in the 13-member West Asian Soccer Federation, Al Medlej has emerged as a compromise candidate.
The Saudi official has been considered an outsider and frequently talked about pulling out of the race unless Sheikh Salman and Al Serkal withdraw.
His campaign has helped increase his profile, though, which could possibly help with the 2015 election, should he stand, when the AFC presidency reverts to a four-year term.
The shorter term on offer this time is a result of Bin Hammam's exit. The Qatari was elected unopposed as AFC president for a third four-year term in 2011, leaving two years on that cycle.
Bin Hammam had been bidding to become the first Asia head of FIFA but his campaign ended in disgrace when he was found guilty of offering money to Caribbean voters in return for their backing in the election against Blatter.
Accompanying Bin Hammam on that ill-fated trip to Trinidad was Worawi, who has also had to battle claims of wrongdoing during his 16 years as a FIFA executive committee member.
The Thai says he has the backing of the Southeast Asian region's 11 members but his hopes of attracting the eight votes in South Asia could have taken a hit by FIFA's 90-day suspension of Sri Lankan ally Manil Fernando, who was also in Trinidad, for alleged misuse of AFC funds.
These issues, along with the very real problems of matchfixing, disharmony among some members and a lack of professionalism among others leaves the winner of the election with a tough task to get the AFC moving in the right direction.
Worawi told Reuters last week he was the man for the job but also acknowledged the scale of the task.
"I don't promise miracles," the Thai said. "I am not a magician. I don't have a magic wand."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)