The highest-ranking official of the Asian Football Confederation will be visiting Saipan on Feb. 25.
AFC president Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa’s historic visit to the island was confirmed by AFC general secretary Dato Windsor John, adding that the former will be joined by FIFA Council member Mariano Araneta Jr., AFC Member Association and International Relations director Ravi Kumar and assistant to the AFC president, Abbas Marzouq.
“We are pleased to inform you that the AFC president, His Excellency, Sheikh Salman Bin Ibrahim Al-Khalifa, will be visiting NMIFA on February 25. The purpose of the visit is to strengthen our mutual relations by engaging closely with your association to gain an insight into the challenges and opportunities facing the game in Northern Mariana Islands,” John said in a letter sent to Northern Mariana Islands Football Association general secretary Ross Zapanta last week.
NMIFA, under the leadership of its president, Jerry Tan, is thankful and honored with the AFC head and other officials’ visit, especially now that the association, through the financial assistance of AFC, is working on the repairs at the NMI Soccer Training Center that sustained massive damage from Super Typhoon Yutu. Sheikh Salman’s visit is also timely, as NMIFA is gearing up for the opening of the spring season of the youth, women’s and men’s leagues.
“We are deeply grateful for Sheikh Salman and the AFC delegation, as their presence on island could not have come at an opportune time since we are still recovering from the devastation that Super Typhoon Yutu left on Saipan and Tinian,” Tan said.
The NMIFA president added that when AFC learned about what happened to the islands and the training facility, the confederation immediately sent its best regards to the affected residents and stepped in to help bring back the NMISTC to its top form. AFC, through its social responsibility program, then allocated a substantial amount to fund the repair work at the Koblerville facility.
“Now, Sheik Salman and his team decided to come over to personally see what we have here and how they can be of assistance to CNMI football. It takes so much commitment and compassion from Sheikh Salman to come here all the way from Bahrain and have a first-hand look at how we are growing the sport here. We are very honored with the visit and we can’t thank Sheikh Salman and AFC enough for all the assistance we’re receiving from them,” Tan said.
“When our facility was damaged by Super Typhoon Yutu, players were worried that it may take a long time for them to play again. However, we got our main pitch back and with AFC’s help, we will have everything fixed the soonest possible time. Also, in a few weeks, we will start our season and it would be nice for the players to meet the people that made it possible for us to get back our field and make it even better. Sheikh Salman is an inspiration to our players, especially the young kids who always look forward to playing in our beautiful facility,” the NMIFA president said.
Meanwhile, Zapanta said NMIFA, together with the Office of the Governor and the various football clubs, have prepared a warm welcome for Sheikh Salman and the rest of the AFC delegation on Monday.
“It will be the first time that an AFC president is visiting us, so we are definitely excited and honored with their presence. The historic visit goes to show that we are getting valuable support and attention from AFC. Even though we’re still an associate member of AFC, Sheikh Salman and his team are always there to extend a helping hand to make sure that our players, especially the youth, will have the resources they need to continue playing and improving their skills,” Zapanta said.
Sheikh Salman has been at the helm of AFC since 2013 and under his leadership, significant changes and improvements have been implemented in the confederation. On top of the list is the strengthening of the women’s football, while he also focuses on combating match fixing and corruption and promotes the introduction of technologies and continued education of players, coaches, and referees on the technical aspect of the sport.
Before serving as AFC president, Sheikh Salman was the head of the Bahrain Football Association. He was credited for what football experts called the “golden era” of Bahraini football. With the grandson of former Bahrain ruler, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, in charge, the Dilmun’s Warriors nearly qualified (just one win away) for both the 2006 FIFA World Cup and 2010 FIFA World Cup. The team also reached the Asian Cup for the first time in 2004 and under Sheikh Salman’s leadership, the Dilmun’s Warriors moved up to No. 44 in the FIFA world rankings—the highest in the history of Bahraini football.