KUWAIT CITY // With the World Cup in full swing, the headquarters of the Kuwait Football Association (KFA) would normally be full of retired and professional footballers watching games as they conduct their work. This week, however, it is a sharply different sight. "Now, nobody's there. The doors are closed and nobody will be there tomorrow," a source from the KFA said on Monday, while declining to comment on the reasons for the closure. "You will have to read between the lines."
The closure of the headquarters by the government's public authority for youth and sports (PAYS) is the latest twist of a saga that has split Kuwait's 14 sports clubs into two warring camps, each backed by prominent royals. The decision to eject the Fifa-recognised officials from KFA headquarters could lead football's world governing body to reconsider last year's conditional lifting of a ban on the national team from competing in international competitions.
A Kuwaiti sports journalist, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the issue, said: "Kuwait is boiling. We are in a bad situation with the summer heat, but the parliament has another hot situation to deal with." The country's sports woes began in February 2007, when parliament passed a law requiring the football association's board to have 14 members - one from each club - and restricting citizens to one senior post each in sports organisations.
The board that was thrown out of the KFA's offices this week has five members and is led by the royal at the centre of the dispute, Sheikh Talal Fahad Al Sabah, who held many high-profile sports positions, including the presidency of Al Qadisiyah Sports Club, when the law was passed. Sheikh Talal's supporters say the measure was directed towards him. In the aftermath, Sheikh Talal campaigned with the support of 10 clubs for a smaller KFA board.
Jawad Saud, the vice president of Al Salmiya Sporting Club, which was one of three clubs in favour of the law, said: "They want to control football and do anything they want. They don't want us to be in the federation, they want to control it. If somebody's going to break this law, we're not going to be quiet about it. There should be 14 members of the board. "They started causing trouble, they told Fifa that the Kuwaiti government is involved in our sport," Mr Saud said.
Fifa became embroiled in the conflict and eventually banned the national team from international competitions for two brief periods in 2007 and 2008, only removing the ban after a personal plea from the emir. In May 2009, Fifa's executive body extended the conditional lifting of the suspension "to allow the Kuwaiti parliament to ratify amendments to national sports legislation to comply with the requirements of Fifa".
Sheikh Talal's group of clubs independently elected a five-member KFA board in November 2009 and the Lausanne-based Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) recognised the result in May 2010, paving the way for the sheikhto take charge of the association soon after. Many Kuwaitis believe Sheikh Talal is often supported by his brother, Sheikh Ahmad Fahad Al Sabah, a royal who is a member of the cabinet and president of the Olympic Council of Asia.
Khaled al Harban, a former national team player who is a football commentator on Kuwait Television and Al Watan TV, said: "The two groups are trying to control the football federation. There is still no good solution to this problem, but while we wait we're losing our players, losing our directors and losing our clubs." The opposing group's leaders include another royal, Sheikh Ahmad Yousouf Al Sabah, the former chairman of Fifa's interim committee, and Marzouq al Ghanim, an MP who is the former president of Al Kuwait sports club and the head of the parliament's committee for youth and sport.
The CAS's ruling has pitted local law against international sports regulations. This month parliamentarians led by the Popular Action Bloc, a small, populist political group, threatened to question the prime minister in parliament for not implementing the law. "They were scared," the sports journalist said, adding that the government reasserted its authority by ejecting the new board this week.
The crisis has enveloped other sports besides football. In January, the International Olympic Committee suspended Kuwait from international competitions. Husein al Mekaimi, a former goalkeeper for the national team who is the vice president of the committee of local football coaches, which is under the KFA, and who is also a supporter of Sheikh Talal, said: "The problem became bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. Sheikh Talal can stop all sports in the country. If Fifa knows that the government wants to push Sheikh Talal to resign, soccer will stop again,"
Mr al Mekaimi said that the government removed the presidents of the clubs aligned with Sheikh Talal last year and appointed temporary committees that were sympathetic to the "opposition". All 10 former presidents have gone to court and the only two results so far have been in their favour, he said. "It's a strong conflict. All of us are affected. If you don't have teams with good players, a high performance, you won't have the control of the youth," because they will be disillusioned and stay away from games, he said. "But there are many things against Sheikh Talal, I have to help him because I believe in him."