The sixth and final portrait of the Confederation Presidents presents a man whose football status ranks with his peers but whose social rank sets him entirely apart : the President of the Asian Football Confederation, His Royal Highness Sultan Ahmad Shah.
Looks can be deceiving, and so it is with HRH Sultan Ahmad Shah. Behind the stern composure lies an extremely warm persona, the man whom his subjects fondly refer to as "the ruler with a commoner's heart". Indeed, one of the Sultan's most notable characteristics must be his easy-going manner and uncanny ability to strike an instant rapport with those he meets.
On 24 October 1996, Sultan Shah celebrated his 66th birthday. Banner headlines in his state of Pahang, the largest of the country, extolled the virtues of its "loved and respected ruler". Stories were retold of his affection for the people, especially for the hard-core poor, and his compassion for the under-privileged leads him frequently to visit the rural areas, in particular, to learn of their most pressing needs.
In 1979, Sultan Ahmad Shah was elected the seventh Yang DiPertuan Agong, or King of Malaysia. It was then that the Malysians became aware of another aspect of this ruler : his deep love for sport.
He would act as cheerleader at many major sporting events featuring Malaysian competitors, and would often turn up even at their training-camps when he was least expected. He enjoyed talking with the athletes and officials, encouraging them with his own unique personal charm, listening with an attentive ear to their problems and then turning up to watch them in action.
A genuine sports fan
This spontaneous show of support for Malaysian sport earned the monarch the title of "Malaysia's Number One Sports Fan" in 1980, bestowed by the sportswriters. And his support of Malaysian sport was also recognised internationally in 1982 when the International Olympic Committee granted him its highest award, the International Olympic Order. And the enthusiasm for the sport of his homeland is still with him today.
But while sport in general has always been an integral part of Sultan Haji Ahmad Shah's life, his first love has always been ... not football, surprisingly perhaps as he is the President not only of the AFC but also of the Football Association of Malaysia, but polo. But the choice is not so surprising when one knows that Sultan Ahmad Shah is regarded as one of the best polo players in the world, with a stable of horses and his own team.
But football takes a very close second place to his life-long association with polo. It, too, has been in his blood since youth, and there are plenty of stories about his exploits as a youth player famed for a fierce left foot shot that local team goalkeepers came to dread.
The list of favourite sports does not end there, as it also contains another sport popular in his part of the world : hockey, another team sport at which he excelled especially during his reign as King, when he used to lead the veterans "Ahmad Shah XI" in many matches. When the opportunity comes to relax, he enjoys a round of golf, and is making progress there too.
It is probably Sultan Ahmad Shah's attitude that makes him such an outstanding sportsman, on and off the field. He demands the best not only from himself but from all those taking part. He believes in excellence and is always willing to put his shoulder to the wheel to achieve it.Bright future for Asia
"I believe we all have the ability to be the best if we attach an element of seriousness to our dreams," he says. "We must dare to be different. We must look at what others perceive to be ordinary with an eye to achieving extraordinary results.
"We must always translate our vision into action and strive to be a catalyst for change in an environment which is seemingly content to maintain the status quo. Only then can we look forward to the future with confidence."
This in essence is his guiding philosophy in life. Armed with such a vision, he has moved quickly to change the face of Asian football since being elected to the presidency in 1994.
"The future of Asian football is very bright," he believes. "Asia is the world's largest continent in land size and has more than half the world's population. Its variety of languages, races, cultures and religions is fascinating, but at the same time this mixture also provides an enormous challenge in managing its resources. This is particularly true in football, which has unlimited potential for development.
"I would like to see Asia playing a leading role in world football, both at the playing level and in influencing the direction of FIFA and the game itself. I feel that Asian football will make impressive strides in the new millenium. It's just a question of striving for excellence," he says with a characteristic sense of determination.
In the same breath, Sultan Ahmad Shah also says how Asian football breached a psychological barrier when both South Korea and Saudi Arabia performed so well in the 1994 World Cup. More recently, he says that Japan's historic win over Brazil and Korea's exciting win over Ghana in the Olympic Games were further milestones on the road to excellence.
A skilful administrator who studied public administration at Oxford's Worcester College and also attended the University of Exeter in south-west England, Sultan Ahmad Shah worked for a number of years in government. That background has also helped form his strong opinion that professional methods of management need to be introduced into the organisation of football. His order of the day is "Change".
The growth of Asian football has been hampered in the past by a reluctance to change from traditional forms of management to a more professional approach.
A dream fulfilled
"This will not do. We must change," he insists. "But I'm happy to say that many national associations have taken heed of the call for change. The AFC itself has launched several projects to produce better coaches, referees and administrators. These people will establish the necessary infrastructure at all levels in the near future to ensure total development of Asian football."
Changes are evident on other fronts within the AFC. When he was elected in 1994, the new President made a commitment to fulfil the Confederation's cherished dream of having its own headquarters building. That dream has been fulfilled, thanks to the President, whose efforts resulted in the Malaysian government allocating the AFC a four-acre site in Kuala Lumpur. Site clearing work is underway for the Confederation's new headquarters to be completed by December 1997.
On the local front, meanwhile, Malaysian football has also benefited from Sultan Ahmad Shah's leadership. Elected FAM President in 1984, he set about transforming Malaysian football with the introduction of a professional league and many other major changes.
His son, Tengku Abdullah Ibni Sultan Ahmad Shah, one of eight children, is the deputy president of the FAM. Tengku Abdullah, who is also the Regent, also serves as vice-chairman of the AFC Technical Committee and, notably, on the FIFA Committee for Youth Competitions. He is leading the preparations for the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Youth Championship in Malaysia in June and July next year. So clearly the father's devotion to football has rubbed off on his son.
The AFC President's right-hand man, General Secretary Peter Velappan, describes him as a man with a very sharp mind. "He is able to focus on issues quickly and is constantly coming up with strategies on making Asia a football power. But most of all he is a friend and this makes working with him a pleasure," says Peter Velappan.
Sultan Ahmad Shah is certainly a colourful personality, a man of many talents, and football has definitely become the richer from his whole-hearted involvement.