Under pressure from allegations in an American federal court that he bribed FIFA voters, Asian Olympic leader Sheikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah of Kuwait resigned from his soccer roles on Sunday.
Sheikh Ahmad\’s move ended his candidacy to retain a seat on FIFA\’s ruling council before eight days of voting by Asian soccer officials in Bahrain.
"I do not want these allegations to create divisions or distract attention from the upcoming AFC (Asian Football Confederation) and FIFA Congresses," said the Kuwaiti royal, who denies any wrongdoing.
"Therefore, after careful consideration, I have decided it is in the best interests of FIFA and the AFC, for me to withdraw my candidacy for the FIFA Council and resign from my current football positions," he said.
Still, the charismatic Sheikh Ahmad is keeping his portfolio of influential Olympic positions.
He has been president of the global group of national Olympic bodies, known as ANOC, since 2012; president of the Olympic Council of Asia since 1991; and chairman of the IOC\’s Olympic Solidarity panel which distributes hundreds of millions of dollars to ANOC members.
The sheikh left FIFA, which he joined in 2015, as pressure was building to remove him from the May 8 election. Two FIFA panels were reviewing his status this weekend.
FIFA President Gianni Infantino said he had "taken note" of the sheikh\’s move, adding in a brief statement that "I want to thank him for taking this decision which certainly was not easy to take but is in the best interest for FIFA."
Sheikh Ahmad contacted the ethics panels of FIFA and the IOC after the allegations were made in Brooklyn federal courthouse on Thursday.
FIFA audit committee member Richard Lai, an American citizen from Guam, pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy charges related to taking around $1 million in bribes, including at least $850,000 from Kuwaiti officials. The cash was to buy influence and help recruit other Asian soccer officials prepared to take bribes, Lai said in court.
After the allegations emerged, the FIFA Review Committee, which rules on the integrity of people seeking senior positions, was studying the sheikh\’s candidacy.
The FIFA ethics committee is making a separate assessment which could provisionally suspend the sheikh, a past president of Kuwait\’s soccer federation who also briefly coached the national team.
Resigning from his soccer positions does not necessarily put Sheikh Ahmad out of reach of FIFA ethics prosecutors and judges if any action was taken.
In 2012, former FIFA presidential candidate Mohamed bin Hammam of Qatar was banned for life by the ethics committee days after he resigned.
Bin Hammam was also clearly identified in Lai\’s court hearing for having paid Lai a total of $100,000 in bribes to support the Qatari\’s failed challenge to FIFA\’s then-president Sepp Blatter in 2011. Bin Hammam was removed from that election contest in a Caribbean bribery case.
Sheikh Ahmad\’s contact with the IOC\’s ethics commission was revealed Saturday by the IOC, which said the bribery allegations "not related to any IOC matter."
As the elected leader of national Olympic bodies worldwide since 2012, Sheikh Ahmad\’s support has often been cited as key to winning Olympic elections and hosting awards. The sheikh was widely credited for helping Thomas Bach win the IOC presidency in 2013.
However, Sheikh Ahmad\’s reputation as an election "kingmaker" took a hit last year when Infantino won the FIFA presidency ahead of his preferred candidate, Sheikh Salman of Bahrain.
Although Sheikh Ahmad was not named in Department of Justice and court documents last week, he has become one of the most significant casualties of the sprawling U.S. federal investigation of bribery and corruption in international soccer revealed two years ago.
The sheikh could be identified in a transcript of Lai\’s court hearing which said "co-conspirator #2 was also the president of Olympic Council of Asia." Co-conspirator #3 was described as having a "high-ranking" role at the OCA, and also linked to the Kuwait soccer federation.
According to the published transcript, Lai claimed he "received at least $770,000 in wire transfers from accounts associated with Co-Conspirator #3 and the OCA between November of 2009 and about the fall of 2014."
"I understood that the source of this money was ultimately Co-Conspirator #2 and on some occasion Co-Conspirator #3 told me to send him an email saying that I need funds so he could show the email to Co-Conspirator #2," Lai said in court.
Lai admitted that he agreed to help recruit other Asian officials that voted in FIFA elections who would help Kuwait\’s interests.
The Guam soccer federation leader since 2001, Lai pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy charges and failing to disclose foreign bank accounts. He agreed to pay more than $1.1 million in forfeiture and penalties, and will be sentenced at a later date.
The American federal investigation of corruption linked to FIFA has indicted or taken guilty pleas from more than 40 people and marketing agencies linked to soccer in the Americas since 2015.
Lai\’s case marked the first major step into Asia, and suggests other soccer officials potentially recruited by the Kuwait faction could be targeted.
The Asian election for FIFA seats next week in Bahrain, is the same day as a FIFA Council meeting which the sheik will not attend. The FIFA congress is held in the city three days later with Asian soccer potentially in turmoil having seen its most influential official leave.
"I will continue to support the family of football once these allegations have been disproved," Sheikh Ahmad said Sunday.