The international football federation has banned Laos’ football association chief from all soccer-related activities for two years and fined him nearly U.S. $20,000 for bribery.
Viphet Sihachakr, president of the Lao Football Federation since September 2010, solicited and accepted a payment from another football official, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), which governs association football, said in a press release on Monday.
Viphet accepted the payment in relation to the 2011 elections for FIFA’s executive committee at the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) congress, FIFA said. The AFC is the body that governs the game in Asia.
“It is true that FIFA has banned the president of the Lao Football Federation, and the federation must follow FIFA’s ruling,” said a statement issued by the Lao Football Federation on Wednesday, but added that in this instance, Viphet had not accepted a bribe.
“That is not true,” the statement said, explaining that Viphet had been searching for funds from international and external sources as part of his plan to develop football in Laos when the incident occurred.
“In early 2011, he attended the executive meeting of the Asian Football Confederation and asked for funds from it,” the statement said. “The AFC issued the funds, which is why FIFA says Viphet accepted a bribe.”
The AFC, however, first transferred the funds to Viphet’s own bank account, and not directly to the account of Lao Football Federation, it said.
The statement went on to say that Viphet had transferred the money from his bank account to that of the Lao Football Federation and provided proof of the transfer to internal and external auditors.
“I never thought that my lack of knowledge of football management at that time would cause such a problem today,” Viphet told the Vientiane Times in a Wednesday report. “I never learned football management rules before taking up the position. I just tried my best to look for sponsors from this region of the world to develop football in Laos, but FIFA found that I accepted a payment from the Asian Football Confederation…”
Viphet and his lawyers plan to appeal the decision with the Court of Arbitration for Sport, an international body headquartered in Lausanne, Switzerland, which settles sports-related disputes through arbitration.
“FIFA will not ban anyone without concrete evidence and facts because it is a large, world-class organization,” said a Lao football fan who resides in the capital Vientiane. “Viphet Sihachakr … has just issued a statement at a press conference making excuses [for his actions] and to save face.”
The fan pointed out that it was illegal for Viphet to allow any sponsors or the AFC to transfer money to his own bank account.
“Based on financial rules, the AFC must transfer [funds] to the account of the Lao Football Federation, which are the normal guidelines that any football federation or civil society organizations and nonprofit associations in Laos must always follow,” he said.
A blow to Lao sports
The corruption scandal is a blow not only for football in Laos, but also for sports as a whole in the developing Southeast Asian nation.
Laos has about 10 semiprofessional football teams, but no leagues as do other countries where the sport is more developed.
“No matter whether he [Viphet] accepted a payment or not, he has to step down to show responsibility for what happened,” another Vientiane resident who requested anonymity.
An official who works for the Lao National Sports Committee told RFA that all football federations have problems with corruption, and Laos is no exception.
“Officials with high-ranking positions on the committee have big houses and become wealthier than they were before [they joined],” he said.
Phouthong Seang-Akhom, former president of the Lao National Sports Committee, was forced to retire after the country hosted the Southeast Asian Games in 2009 because he engaged in corruption, said the source, who declined to be named.
“That’s why the government decided to place the Lao National Sports Committee under the administration of the Ministry of Education and Sports,” he said. “Before that, the government was planning to establish a sports ministry but failed.”
On Monday, FIFA also banned Ganesh Thapa, president of the All-Nepal Football Association, from all football-related activities for 10 years and fined him 20,000 Swiss Francs (nearly U.S. $20,000) following an investigation on bribery charges.
Thapa “committed various acts of misconduct over several years, including the solicitation and acceptance of cash payments from another football official, for both personal and family gain,” in relation to the 2009 and 2011 elections at the AFC congress, according to FIFA’s statement.
The former AFC vice president and current member of Nepal’s parliament is also under investigation by Nepalese authorities for allegedly embezzling millions of dollars of football development money.
Thapa told the BBC that he will appeal the decision at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Reported by Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.