President Blatter set for Asian tour

FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter speaks during the FIFA Beach Soccer World Cup opening press conference
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FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter will lead a delegation of officials on a brief but action-packed tour of Asia today. Between Tuesday and Friday, the head of world football's governing body will visit Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and India.

After a short stop in New Delhi, India, the FIFA President will head for Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, accompanied by AFC President Zhang Jilong and FIFA Executive Committee member V. Manilal Fernando. For Mr Blatter, the voyage will represent a return to the country he first journeyed to in April 2006.

With its national side currently placed 157th on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, Bangladesh is keen to develop football within its borders and hopes to reap the benefits of a new football academy. Indeed, the President of the Bangladeshi Football Association (BFF), Kazi Mohammed Salahuddin, told as much during a visit to the Home of FIFA last December: “My goal is to get Bangladesh back into the top 15 of the Asian section of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, and then to slowly but surely work our way towards the summit.”

The FIFA delegation will begin this first leg of their tour by attending a meeting of the BFF’s Executive Committee, after which they will inaugurate a *Goal *II project in the form of an artificial pitch and launch a *Goal *III project – the much-anticipated football academy. Following a press conference, the FIFA President will then bring his visit to Bangladesh to a close by meeting with the country’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina.

*First visit to Bhutan *

Heading north, the FIFA delegation will subsequently touch down in Bhutan for President Blatter's maiden trip to the country. On Tuesday, he will be received by the King of Bhutan, Jigme Khesar Namgyel, before speaking with the country’s Sports Representative, Prince Jigyel, and later sitting down with Prime Minister Jigme Thinley. Those meetings will be followed by a press conference.

An inauguration ceremony will occupy attentions the following day, with *Goal *III and IV project football pitches belonging to the Bhutan Football Federation to be unveiled next to the National Stadium in the presence of Prince Jigyel. They will bring fresh hope to a tiny nation of just 700,000 inhabitants, and an altitude ranging from 200 to 7,000 metres, which has become accustomed to the lower echelons of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.

The President of the Bhutanese Football Association, Dasho Ugyen Dorji, will be particularly keen to see progress made. “We’re putting a strong emphasis on working with youngsters and promoting grassroots football,” he explained back in 2009. “Thanks to the Goal *projects, we've been able to modernise and expand our training facilities – and we're looking to improve them further still. The *Goal Programme has really been an enormous help.”

Towards the end of the morning, President Blatter and Co will travel west to continue their tour in Nepal. Scheduled to arrive in Kathmandu, the FIFA delegation will have little time to spare before they are received by the country’s Prime Minister, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, and then by the head of state, President Dr Ram Baran Yadav.

AFC Challenge Cup in Nepal
After that, it will be time to attend the opening ceremony of the AFC Challenge Cup and take in the tournament’s opening match between Nepal and Palestine. Hosting the Challenge Cup represents a huge breakthrough for Nepal and will be the biggest sporting event ever organised by the country, which boasts eight of the world’s ten highest mountain peaks. The Nepalese national side will be highly motivated to excel on home soil, and not least because the competition winners will earn themselves a place at the prestigious AFC Asian Cup, which will next be held in 2015. Nepal can take encouragement from recent results too, having reached the semi-finals of last December’s South Asian Football Federation Championship.

On Friday, the FIFA President will meet with Nepalese football representatives, including the Executive Committee of the All-Nepal Football Association. After that, he will visit Nepal’s *Goal *II project – pitches and dormitories – and officially launch the *Goal *III project, a football academy. That ceremony will be followed by a press conference.

The FIFA delegation will then return to their starting point by heading back to New Delhi. Last year brought several lows for Indian football as the national side failed to progress beyond the group stage at the 2011 Asian Cup and were eliminated by the United Arab Emirates in the second round of Asian Zone qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. Despite those blows, they were nonetheless able to pick themselves up in time for the South Asian Football Federation Championship in December, which they won as hosts. India will now be determined to repeat that success at the Challenge Cup and seal their spot at the next edition of the Asian Cup.

Mr Blatter last visited India in his capacity as FIFA President in 2007, and this time he will attend a session of the Executive Committee of the All-India Football Federation (AIFF) before meeting Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and then enjoying an audience with President Pratibha Devisingh Patil and the Sports Minister, Shri Ajay Maken. The day’s activities will conclude with a press conference.

On the ground, the FIFA President’s arrival has stirred up a major sense of anticipation in the four countries he is scheduled to visit. As the vice-President of the AIFF, Subrata Dutta, put it: “President Blatter's visit shows how much importance FIFA is giving to India. The world governing body's support in building the right kind of infrastructure in the country has been beyond our expectations."

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