Asia’s football chief said he was “stunned” on Friday after he was quoted as outlining a movement to oust Asian Cup hosts Australia from the regional body.
Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim Al Khalifa said his comments had been “manipulated” after he told UAE newspaper Al Ittihad that some countries wanted Australia out.
Australian newspapers splashed with the story, a day before the Socceroos take on South Korea in the Asian Cup final as they try to win the title for the first time.
“I’m really stunned with the timing to bring this topic out. It’s a false topic,” the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president told the Herald Sun newspaper.
“To read a story like this is really sad because there’s no truth in it.
“The success of this tournament has exceeded our expectations. I won’t let a story like this affect the success of the tournament we had in Australia.”
Australia’s football boss David Gallop had said he was “extremely surprised” at Shaikh Salman’s comments to Arabic-language Al Ittihad.
The newspaper quoted the Bahraini royal as saying some AFC members in West Asia and beyond are opposed to the involvement of Australia, which joined from Oceania in 2006.
“There are other Asian associations in different regions of the continent that see the need of disengagement between us and Australia,” Shaikh Salman was quoted as saying.
“Therefore we can’t just monitor the feedbacks or statements, but the movement and the decision should be from within the AFC Congress, because it’s the authority that can make the decision of reconsidering Australia joining Asia or any other decision.”
– ‘Great respect’ –
But in a statement released on Friday, Shaikh Salman assured Australia of its place in the AFC and said it had been “working diligently to make a contribution at all levels”.
“The AFC Asian Cup Australia 2015 has been a wonderful showcase for Asian football,” he added.
“Australia is a full member of AFC like any other and the relationship with its fellow member associations can only grow stronger in the years ahead.”
Opposition to Australia within the AFC is thought to be too limited to pose a serious threat and is based on the country’s success at the expense of rival teams.
Since joining Asia, Australia have qualified for two straight World Cups and two Asian Cup finals, and they also won the 2010 Women’s Asian Cup.
Western Sydney Wanderers won last year’s AFC Champions League, and victory on Saturday would make Australia the first country to hold both the club title and national crown.
Socceroos coach Ange Postecoglou said Australia had a “great deal of respect” for Asian nations when he was asked about the AFC controversy.
“I’ve had numerous discussions with opposition coaches from all over Asia and there’s a great deal of mutual respect,” he told reporters in Sydney.
“From our perspective as a nation our goal is to continually hopefully raise the standards in this region.
“The goal should be collectively for an Asian country to win the World Cup. We’ve got to break the European/South American cycle and that’s only going to happen if there’s real mutual respect amongst all the countries here to keep improving the football.”
Star forward Tim Cahill also defended Australia’s contribution after a successful Asian Cup with total attendances set to hit 650,000.
“Politically for us I think we’ve brought a lot (to Asia),” Cahill said. “If you look at all the nations that’s come to Australia and every stadium that we’ve filled together.
“The multi-culturalism that we have in this country and the way we’ve embraced football I feel is very important for the growth of the game.
“But I feel that being Australian and being who we are will always help to grow the game any country we play regardless of AFC or Europe or wherever it may be.”