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Soccer: SAFF members leave west Asia forum before AFC Congress

NEW DELHI/KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - India and six other South Asian nations have pulled out of a new Saudi Arabia-led football bloc with immediate effect, putting its future in doubt on the eve of the Asian Football Confederation’s congress in Kuala Lumpur.

The South West Asian Football Federation (SWAFF) was set up in June and is widely seen as a vehicle to grow the aspirations of Saudi Arabia within the region.

SWAFF had included the Gulf nations of Bahrain, Yemen, Oman, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia as well as the seven South Asian Football Federations (SAFF) now pulling out - India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

“The problem started because we never discussed between ourselves whether we should be involved (in SWAFF). It was all done knee-jerk,” All India Football Federation president Praful Patel told Reuters.

“Any understanding or grouping together of countries for the larger good should not be a problem, but I don’t think it was well thought through when we took that decision.”

The news may boost the re-election hopes of current AFC president Sheikh Salman bin Khalifa, who faces a possible challenge from former Saudi Arabia Football Federation president Adel Ezzat next year.

Sheikh Salman will be looking to secure a third term as AFC president when the body’s decision makers meet in Kuala Lumpur on April 6.

The AFC congress on Wednesday is expected to give official recognition to the long-standing regional bodies of the west, south, south east and east Asian football groupings.

“All these federations - SAFF, East Asia, Asean - are all groupings but they do not have any statutory recognition, and tomorrow we are getting recognised, as are all the other regions,” said Patel.

“So once you have statutory recognition, what do you do with the other groupings?,” he asked. “West Asia doesn’t have all its countries involved in SWAFF, so it’s an incomplete organisation.”

“We have no disrespect to any country or what they thought of doing. But with the recognition that SAFF will be getting, it will be much easier to work,” Patel said.

A SWAFF spokesman said the body had yet to be informed of the decision by the seven South Asian nations to withdraw.

“We have yet to receive notification from the seven countries of their intention to resign,” he said.

Reporting by Amlan Chakraborty in New Delhi and Michael Church in Kuala Lumpur; Editing by Sudipto Ganguly and Hugh Lawson