"Mr Hammam, honestly speaking, I feel as if I'm in a fortress," I pulled no punches as the gentleman in a dapper suit escorted me to the lift.
"I used to be able to walk into anybody's office or cubicle when AFC were sharing the same roof with OCM. Those days I could walk directly into Datuk Peter's office, but of course subject to prior approval of her PA."
The Arab gentleman shrugged it aside, saying: "We are trying to project a professional image. It is also for security reasons."
I left it at that.
By now Mr Mohamed Hammam Al-Abdulla, who was installed as the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) president in 2002, has grown accustomed to my style, direct and sometimes brusque to the point of being annoying.
On many occasions that our paths crossed, he assured me he would not entertain any calls for the AFC House to be shifted.
So when Hammam's proposal for AFC to move elsewhere was leaked out on Tuesday, a few hours ahead of the Malaysia-Chelsea match, read here it took me by surprise.
In a series of entries about AFC I intend to post in the foreseeable future, let's study the content of the interview I had with him in February 2002.
EXCEPT for their first four years when there were four presidents - all from Hong Kong - the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) have been helmed by Malaysians.
From 1958 until today, a Prime Minister, a Cabinet member and a former Yang di-Pertuan Agong have had a hand in turning AFC into a respected organisation in world soccer.
Yet two years before AFC complete their five decades of existence, Malaysia are in danger of losing the presidency to a Qatari.
FIFA executive committee member Mohammad Hammam Al-Abdulla, described as a true gentleman by insiders, has declared his intention to run for the No 1 post.
The 20th AFC Congress, scheduled for May 10, has been postponed after the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan, thus giving rise to the speculation that incumbent Sultan Ahmad Shah - who was unanimously elected in 1994 after Tan Sri Hamzah Abu Samah pulled out from the race two days before the elections due to health reasons - might pass the baton to Hammam.
Always immaculately dressed, Hammam, 53 on May 8, looks like some dapper businessman ready to conduct deals at the drop of a hat. The father of 10 - five sons and five daughters - shares his thoughts with Mailsport's Rizal Hashim.
SUNDAY MAIL: Why do you see the need to have a change in AFC's leadership? And what made you decide to contest the No 1 post?
HAMMAM: With due respect to His Royal Highness the Sultan, I felt the time was right for a change. The Press got hold of the fact that I was contesting the post before I had the chance to discuss the matter with the president. Now that I have spoken to the president of my intention, he understood my feelings and the reasons behind this decision. He did not want to stand in my way as he felt it was my democratic right to contest. I sought his blessings to do so. If he had said no, I would not have declared my candidature. Since coming into AFC six years ago, I have felt Asia is divided into several factions. Although it is not so, the opinion, within and outside the world soccer fraternity, is that we are not a family. My priority is to change that perception. The feedback I get is that AFC are divided and there are splinter groups - the Middle East is not on the same wavelength as leaders from the Far East or the former Soviet bloc and etc etc. Let me reiterate that the Sultan had contributed to the development of football in Asia. I have the utmost respect for him.
SM: The decision to postpone the AFC Congress is seen as a compromise to allow Sultan Ahmad Shah to lead AFC into the first World Cup in Asia before passing the baton to you. What is your opinion?
HAMMAM: AFC under the able leadership of the Sultan worked hard to bring the World Cup to Asia. Rightfully His Royal Highness should be accorded the honour to lead AFC into an event which is a milestone in the history of football. After all the Sultan was the one who had formally proposed the idea of co-hosting. I would not want to speculate on the possible contest because His Royal Highness has yet to make his position clear.
SM: Many see the presidency as a full-time job. If you were to become AFC's eighth president, how would juggle your time between your duties in AFC, FIFA and your family in Doha?
HAMMAM: I reckon I would be spending more time in Kuala Lumpur. But as it is, I have been criss-crossing the globe due to my commitments with FIFA and AFC. I supervise the GOAL project in every continent and I am also the chairman of the FIFA technical committee which convenes to discuss the technical matters and finer points of the game.
SM: How would you react should there be another candidate to emerge between now and nomination day?
HAMMAM: AFC have always practised democracy. In that true spirit of democracy the Sultan gave me his blessings to stand for elections. But I believe I have the support of even Sultan Ahmad Shah if there were to be some other candidates.
SM: The AFC secretariat have been based in Malaysia when it was moved from Hong Kong to Penang in 1965. In 1978 it was moved to Kuala Lumpur and two years ago, AFC's own building was completed. Do you see the need to shift it elsewhere?
HAMMAM: I have no intention of moving the AFC secretariat out of Kuala Lumpur. A lot of money has been spent in developing the AFC House and it is in no one's interest to contemplate a shift. Kuala Lumpur, after all, is a strategic location. From the Middle East it takes around seven hours to reach Kuala Lumpur and this city is around six hours away from Japan.
SM: Is the position of the general secretary, Datuk Peter Velappan, under threat should a new president be elected into office?
HAMMAM: The issue does not arise. Without Velappan, AFC would not be where it is now. Velappan is my partner, and a partner of Asia and AFC. He has been the backbone of the organisation long before others came into the picture. I also do not understand why is Velappan being dragged into the battle for presidency. Although his position carries a certain degree of influence, one must not forget that the executive committee is the supreme policymaker of AFC. The secretariat merely implements the policies. And the office-bearers are elected into office through a secret ballot from the delegates of 44 countries, 43 if you exclude Afghanistan.
SM: Tell us a little bit of your background.
HAMMAM: I have been involved in sports since 1970 when I became the president of Al-Rayyan, one of the biggest clubs in Qatar. I was president of the Qatar FA between 1992 and 1996 before moving on to AFC and FIFA. I also held the presidency of the Qatari volleyball and table tennis associations from 1979 to 1983. I was also a member of the Qatar Olympic Committee as well as a member of the Qatari Advisory Council which is equivalent to the parliament. I am involved in the construction business. I did Business Administration at Beirut University in Lebanon. This is a bit embarrassing, but I have 10 children - five sons and five
daughters. One more and I would have a football team! And contrary to reports, I do not fly by private jets.